West Palm Beach, FL—Attorneys battled Wednesday over whether the statute of limitations bars a former smoker's suit against R.J. Reynolds for the respiratory disease that renders him dependent on an oxygen tank, as trial opened in the case. Hackimer v. R.J. Reynolds, 2014-CA-010849.
John Hackimer, 70, was diagnosed in 1993 with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an umbrella term for emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Hackimer, who began smoking at about 10 years old, and smoked up to three packs of cigarettes a day for 30-plus years, claims Reynolds hid the dangers of smoking, causing him to become addicted to cigarettes and ultimately leading to his COPD.
Hackimer's case stems from the class action Engle v. Liggett Group, in which Florida smokers successfully sued the country's tobacco companies for allegedly hiding the dangers of cigarettes from the public. The Florida Supreme Court affirmed the jury's findings but decertified the class. To prevail, plaintiffs 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, such as COPD.
However, a so-called Engle progeny claim such as Hackimer's is time barred if the smoker at the heart of the case knew or should have known that they had their disease before May 5, 1990 and there was a reasonable possibility it was caused by smoking.
During Wednesday's opening statements, King & Spalding's Jeffrey Furr told jurors Hackimer showed tell-tale symptoms of COPD, including a chronic cough and shortness of breath, long before the May 5, 1990 cutoff date. "That's exactly what the fact witnesses are going to tell you that he experienced beginning in the 1970s," Furr said. "Chronic cough and shortness of breath."
Furr also claimed Hackimer's 24-year railroad career likely caused his COPD. "Every year that he worked on the railroad increased his risk of developing COPD from occupational exposures," Furr said.
However, Hackimer's attorney, The Alvarez Law Firm's Alex Alvarez told jurors Hackimer spent 75-80% of his railroad work on electric trains and wasn't exposed to dangerous diesel fumes very often. "The exposure is very, very minimal, and highly unlikely it caused his emphysema," Alvarez said.
Alvarez also told jurors there was no medical record evidence Hackimer had COPD until 1993. "No doctor ever diagnosed Mr. Hackimer with COPD before May 5, 1990. Not a single one," Alvarez said. "No one's going to come up on that [witness] stand and say he was diagnosed before 1990."
Trial in the case is expected to last through next week.
John & Deborah Hackimer are represented by The Alvarez Law Firm's Alex Alvarez.
R.J. Reynolds is represented by Jeffrey Furr, of King & Spalding.