Fort Lauderdale, FL—As trial opened last week against the nation's two largest tobacco companies over claims smoking killed a New York native who spent her winters in Florida, attorneys debated what fueled the woman's half-century of smoking and whether she was a sunshine state resident for purposes of a massive tobacco class action. Martin v. Philip Morris, et al., 2007-CV-036440.
New York-native Carole Martin was only 12 in 1951 when she first picked up a Philip Morris-made Lucky Strikes cigarette. She continued to smoke up to two packs of cigarettes a day for 55 years, said attorney Eric Rosen of Kelley Uustal, representing Martin's widower, Stanley Martin. Martin ultimately suffered a heart attack in 1995 before developing lung cancer in 2003.
She died in 2004.
Stanley Martin claims Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds hooked his wife on cigarettes and ultimately caused her heart disease and cancer by hiding the dangers of cigarettes from the public for much of the 20th century.
Martin's case is one of thousands of suits against the tobacco giants that stem from Engle v. Liggett Group, a 1994 class action lawsuit involving Florida smokers. Jurors in the original class action found for the plaintifs and concluded the companies knowingly produced dangerous, addictive cigarettes and hid those dangers from the public. The Florida Supreme Court decertified the class, but allowed the jury's findings to stand. Individual "Engle-progeny" plaintiffs must prove the smokers at the centers of their cases suffered from nicotine addiction that caused a smoking-related disease in order to be entitled to the original jury's findings on liability.
However, to fall within the ambit of the Engle class, a smoking-related disease must "manifest" itself before November 21, 1996, meaning Carole Martin's 1995 heart disease is the disease on which Engle class membership hinges.
During last Wednesday's openings, Eric Rosen said Martin's heart disease was caused by a nicotine addiction so powerful, cigarettes consumed much of her day. Rosen told jurors Martin smoked first thing in the morning, while cooking, in the car, in bed, while pregnant, and during meals. She even checked herself out of the hospital so that she could smoke, Rosen said. "She had a heart attack in '95, and she continued to smoke right after that," Rosen told jurors, adding Martin failed in quit attempts using a variety of methods from eating hard candy to plastic cigarette substitutes.
"For every choice that [Carole Martin] made, I’m going to ask that you look at what she knew and when she knew it," Rosen said. "And look at what R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris knew and when they knew it, and what they were doing at each point in her life.”
But Shook Hardy's William Geraghty, representing Philip Morris, took issue with Carole Martin's portrayal as hopelessly addicted to cigarettes, and described her as a strong, independent, and sometimes stubborn woman who knew the dangers of smoking but was not interested in quitting until it was too late to prevent the disease.
"The undisputed evidence will show that Stanley and Carole Martin are intelligent people who knew smoking was dangerous for decades. In fact, Stanley Martin himself quit smoking in 1962 or 1963 and he never smoked another cigarette," Geraghty said. "Carole Martin made no real effort to quit smoking for most of her adult life because she enjoyed smoking cigarettes and she wanted to smoke. So in one sense this case holds a simple question. Are you going to hold Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds legally responsible for Carole Martin's decision to smoke cigarettes and award Stanley Martin money damages when the evidence will show that Carole Martin lived her life the way she wanted to live it? She smoked cigarettes because that’s what she wanted to do and she had no real interest in quitting until the very end."
Beyond addiction, Geraghty argued the Martins were not Florida residents for purposes of Engle class membership. Geraghty said the couple, who purchased a Florida home in 1992 when Stanley retired, were "snowbirds," who spent winters at their Florida home but continued to live in New York outside the cold season. "They maintain a house in New York because Carole Martin doesn't particularly like Florida," Geraghty said.
Later, King & Spalding's Ursula Henninger, representing R.J. Reynolds, told jurors Martin stopped smoking R.J. Reynolds cigarettes in 1975, when she was 36 years old, and never tried to quit cigarettes while she was a Reynolds-brand smoker. "You may have heard about all of these times she tried to quit smoking. None of that occurred before 1975 when she when was smoking R.J. Reynolds cigarettes," Henninger said, arguing Reynolds cigarettes did not cause the heart disease and Cancer Martin suffered decades later.
Trial in the case is expected to last through the end of this week.
Eric Rosen, of Kelley Uustal, represents Stanley Martin.
William Geraghty, of Shook Hardy, represents Philip Morris.
Ursula Henninger, of King & Spalding, represents R.J. Reynolds.