Miami, FL—A former insurance executive who underwent open-heart surgery after smoking for 30 years told jurors cigarettes controlled his life so completely it was all he thought about by the time he finally quit, as trial against cigarette-maker R.J. Reynolds got underway this week. Wilkins v. R.J. Reynolds, 15-2007-CA-20.15-2007-CA-20.
"I couldn't stand cigarettes anymore," said William Wilkins, 73, who claims Reynolds fraudulently sold him the addictive cigarettes he began smoking as a Boy Scout at the age of 12. "I didn't like the taste. They controlled my whole life."
Wilkins told jurors he and his wife, Karen, also a former smoker, would worry about whether they would have enough cigarettes with them and when they would be able to smoke again whenever they made plans to go out. "That train of thought is going on all the time," Wilkins said.
Wilkins said the couple tried to quit 4 or 5 times each year before Wilkins finally quit in 1986.
Six years after he quit, a company-required stress test for a life insurance policy revealed a 98% coronary blockage that sent Wilkins to the hospital, he told jurors. The next day he had bypass surgery followed by weeks of rehab. "It was amazing to me that I couldn't do what I used to take for granted," Wilkins testified.
Less than 8 weeks later, doctors performed an angioplasty on Wilkins after discovering the blockage reoccurred.
Wilkins's case stems from Engle v. Liggett Group, the 1994 class action that involved Florida smokers who successfully argued that U.S. tobacco companies hid from consumers the fact that their cigarettes were dangerous and addictive. The Florida Supreme Court affirmed the jury's findings but decertified the class. Plaintiffs now must file their claims individually and prove the smokers at the centers of their cases suffered from nicotine addiction that caused a smoking-related disease.
However, Reynolds argues Wilkins was not addicted to nicotine. During opening statements Wednesday, King & Spalding attorney Cory Hohnbaum, representing Reynolds, told jurors Wilkins, who was promoted throughout his career and retired in 1998 as a vice president for John Alden Insurance Company, was a highly intelligent man who could have stopped smoking whenever he wanted. "He was able to handle computers and able to handle lots of data," Hohnbaum said. "He was promoted and worked hard and was able to set goals for himself when he was determined to do something."
Hohnbaum also noted Wilkins was at risk for coronary artery disease, or CAD, regardless of his smoking history. Hohnbaum told jurors Wilkins' gender and age put him at greater risk for CAD, and he had a history of hypertension. "Those risk factors would have caused his coronary artery disease even if he had never smoked cigarettes," Hohnbaum said.
"[In] 1992, Mr. Wilkins developed what's called lipid-rich plaque in his coronary artery and that plaque was new plaque—it was plaque that had developed since 1986 not caused by his smoking, and that's the plaque that ruptured and caused the blockage in 1992," said Hohnbaum. "It was not caused by his smoking which had stopped in 1986."
But Wilkins' attorney, Juan Bauta of The Ferraro Law Firm, said smoking led to Wilkins' CAD and "turbo-charged" any other risk factors he carried.
Trial in the case is expected to last into next week.
Juan Bauta, of The Ferraro Law Firm, represents William Wilkins.
King & Spalding's Cory Hohnbaum represe