West Palm Beach, FL—A Florida jury awarded more than $1 million to a woman with late-stage emphysema from a 40-year smoking habit at trial against the tobacco company accused of hiding the dangers of smoking while selling her cigarettes for decades. Ford v. R.J. Reynolds, 2016-CA-002230.
Jurors took a little more than 4 hours to conclude R.J. Reynolds was liable for Minnie Ford's emphysema, which the jury found was caused by nicotine addiction and tobacco industry fraud. However, the 15th Circuit Court jury's $1.023 million award was a fraction of the $6 million in compensatories she sought.
Jurors apportioned only 15% of responsibility to Reynolds and assigned 85% of responsibility to Ford and decline to award punitives in the case.
Ford, 75, began smoking Reynolds-brand cigarettes when she was 15. She was ultimately expelled for smoking and never returned, her attorney, Andrew Rainer of Brody Hardoon, told jurors. Ford, diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in 1995, now suffers from late-stage emphysema that renders her dependent on an oxygen tank.
"[Living with COPD] means living tied to a machine, that literally affects her mobility," Rainer told jurors in his closing argument. "It means not being able to leave the house without helpers. It means not being able to just freely go to visit your sister or your children or your grandchildren. It means always living in fear that you’re not going to be able to breathe."
Ford claims Reynolds hid the dangers of smoking while targeting teens like her, who were susceptible to their marketing. Rainer told jurors Reynolds and other cigarette companies sought to hook teenagers so they would become life-long smokers.
Ford quit smoking in 1997, two years after being diagnosed with COPD.
But Reynolds attorney Mark Belasic of Jones Day used Ford's own testimony to argue she was warned many times about the dangers of smoking. "She told us that she appreciated the doctor's advice [to quit smoking] but that it didn't change her mind," Belasic said in his closing argument. "These are decisions that adults can make. All of us can refuse advice, whether it's from doctors or the people we love. But when we refuse that advice we're responsible for our choice."
Ford's case is one of thousands of similar lawsuits against the nation's tobacco companies, spurred from a 1994 Florida class action suit, Engle v. Liggett Group Inc. Jurors in the original class action found for the plaintiffs 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.
Andrew Rainer of Brody Hardoon represents Minnie Ford.
Mark Belasic of Jones Day represents R.J. Reynolds.