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BREAKING: RJR Thumped with $14M Verdict & Possible Punitives for COPD that Forced Lung Transplant

Posted by Arlin Crisco on Feb 2, 2018 12:27:41 PM

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This article has been updated to reflect Friday's jury verdict. 

Fort Lauderdale, FL—R.J. Reynolds Friday was found liable for nearly $14 million in compensatory damages, plus potential punitives, after jurors found the tobacco giant responsible for the respiratory disease that forced a South Florida smoker to undergo a lung transplant.  Schlefstein v. R.J. Reynolds, 2008-CV-022558.

The award, reached after more than six hours of deliberations, includes $13.5 million for Dawn Schlefstein's pain and suffering stemming from her respiratory disease and the lung transplant that it required, as well as $465,000 for her related medical expenses. 

The 17th Circuit Court jury in Broward County handed down the award after concluding Schlefstein suffered from nicotine addiction that led her to smoke and ultimately caused her respiratory disease. 

Dawn Schlefstein was a regular smoker by the time she was 16, continuing to smoke a pack or more of cigarettes a day for at least 30 years, until she was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, in 1995. Despite quitting, the disease became so serious she ultimately underwent a left lung transplant in 2001.

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Schlefstein, 63, died in 2009 for reasons unrelated to smoking, but, her family claims Reynolds, maker of the cigarettes she smoked, caused her emphysema, by conspiring to hide the dangers of its product for much of her life.

Friday's verdict also found against Reynolds on the family's fraud and conspiracy claims. Punitive proceedings will begain Monday. 

The Alvarez Law Firm’s Alex Alvarez, requested about $12.4 million in compensatories, plus a finding that punitives were warranted, during Thursday’s closing arguments.

The case is one of thousands stemming from Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a Florida state court class-action lawsuit originally filed in 1994. After a trial victory for the class members, the state’s supreme court ultimately decertified the class, but ruled that so-called Engle progeny cases may be tried individually. Engle progeny plaintiffs are entitled to the benefit of the jury's findings in the original verdict, including the determination that tobacco companies had placed a dangerous, addictive product on the market and hid the dangers of smoking, if they prove the smoker at the heart of the case suffered from nicotine addiction that was the legal cause of a smoking-related disease such as emphysema.  

The cause of Schlefstein’s respiratory disease turned into a key point of dispute during the 11-day trial. The defense contended Schlefstein’s COPD was likely caused by something other than smoking, such as a genetic condition.  During Thursday’s closings, King & Spalding’s Kathryn Lehman told jurors Schlefstein developed COPD at an unusually young age, even considering her smoking history. She also noted Schlefstein ultimately developed COPD in her formerly healthy, transplanted lung, despite the fact that she had quit smoking long before the transplant.

Lehman told jurors plaintiff’s expert pulmonologist, Dr. Richard Kradin, concluded that, if Schlefstein hadn’t smoked since her lung transplant, the COPD found in that lung could not have come from cigarettes.  “His very words undermine the possibility, they prevent the plaintiff, they close the door, the admission from plaintiff’s own expert is the reason that plaintiff cannot meet their burden of proof,” Lehman said, arguing the cause of COPD in Schlefstein’s transplanted lung was likely the same as the cause of her original respiratory disease.

But Gordon & Doner’s Gary Paige, representing Schlefstein’s family, told jurors the weight of medical evidence proved Schlefstein’s smoking led to the COPD that required her transplant. “There’s no doubt about it, she has no other exposures,” Paige said in his closing argument Wednesday.

Paige noted that, because of the relatively early onset of Schlefstein’s COPD, she was tested multiple times for Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, or A1-A, one genetic disease that often causes COPD. However, the deficiency was never detected. “You will not find one doctor anywhere, outside of court or inside of court, nobody who is trained to diagnose emphysema, nobody in the entire world, ever has said that she has Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency,” Paige said. “There’s no medical doctor to refute it and no reason to refute it.”

Email Arlin Crisco at acrisco@cvn.com.

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Topics: Schlefstein v. R.J. Reynolds, Florida, Engle Progeny, tobacco, Products Liability