Fort Lauderdale, FL—Jurors awarded nearly $8.8 million in compensatory damages to a Florida man for the smoking-related death of his wife, and found R.J. Reynolds potentially liable for punitive damages, after concluding the tobacco company was responsible for the woman's nicotine addiction and respiratory disease. Konzelman v. R.J. Reynolds, 2008-CV-019620.
The compensatory award was $3.5 million more than the $5.295 million Alan Konzelman's attorney, Kelley Uustal’s Eric Rosen requested in Friday's closings. Konzelman, an 87-year-old retired merchant ship engineer claims R.J. Reynolds is responsible for the respiratory disease and 2010 death of his wife, Elaine, by participating in a decades-long conspiracy to conceal the dangers of cigarettes.
Elaine Konzelman began smoking when she was 15 years old and smoked 1 to 2 packs a day for about 40 years until she was put on a ventilator because of her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.
Konzelman’s case stems from Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a Florida state court class-action lawsuit originally filed in 1994, in which jurors found for the plaintiffs. The high court later 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 placed a dangerous, addictive product on the market and hid the dangers of smoking, if they prove the smoker at the heart of a case suffered from nicotine addiction that was the legal cause of a smoking-related disease. To be considered a part of the class, however, a smoker's disease must have manifested itself on or after May 5, 1990, or the smoker must not have reasonably linked their pre-cutoff date symptoms to smoking.
Key to the nine-day trial on class membership were the issues of addiction and whether the claim was time barred. During Friday's closings, Rosen told jurors expert testimony, combined with Elaine Konzelman's own smoking behavior, proved she was hooked on nicotine. "Some of the facts we have is that she smoked a pack, two packs a day for over 40 years," Rosen said during his closing arguments to jurors. "[She] smoked first thing in the morning, she smoked around her kids, her grandkids, while cooking, [on] cruise ships. She couldn't sit through church, through a movie, through a meal without having a cigarette."
Rosen told jurors evidence showed the time a smoker has the first cigarette of the day is a key indicator of addiction because, as a person sleeps, the body is depleted of nicotine and goes into withdrawal. Elaine's husband, Alan Konzelman testified that she woke up, sat up, and smoke her cigarette while sitting on the edge of the bed.
"There’s a reason why you heard there are 500,00 deaths every year of smoking-related diseases," Rosen said. "These people aren’t all just walking off cliffs. There's a driving force, a mechanism behind it."
However, the defense argued Konzelman knew the risks of smoking but smoked because she enjoyed it and refused to make a concerted effort to quit until her respiratory disease forced her onto a ventilator. During Friday's closings, King & Spalding's Jeffrey Furr reminded jurors that Konzelman's personal knowledge of smoking's dangers included the deaths of both her mother and sister from smoking-related diseases.
"Elaine Konzelman was personally warned over and over about the dangers of smoking throughout her life. You know that she knew that smoking could kill her by the 1960s when her father told her so," said Furr. "Despite knowing that smoking is dangerous and could cause deadly disease, she just loved to smoke."
Furr also argued Konzelman's claim was barred by the statute of limitations, claiming she should have reasonably suspected she had smoking-related COPD before May 5, 1990 based on symptoms of the respiratory disease.
However, Rosen countered Konzelman's disease was not diagnosed until 1995, a half-decade after the Engle cutoff date.
Proceedings to determine punitive damages in the case began Tuesday.
Alan Konzelman is represented by Kelley Uustal’s Eric Rosen.
R.J. Reynolds is represented by King & Spalding’s Jeffrey Furr.
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