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Jury Hits RJR With $2M Verdict, Plus Possible Punitives, For Smoker's Fatal Throat Cancer

Posted by Arlin Crisco on Aug 17, 2018 7:10:52 AM

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Gainesville, FL—Jurors Thursday night handed down a $2 million verdict night against R.J. Reynolds, and found punitives potentially warranted, for the part they concluded the cigarette maker played in the throat cancer-related death of a Florida smoker. Dixon v. R.J. Reynolds, 2015-CA-002554.

Jurors in Florida’s 8th Judicial Circuit, sitting in Alachua County, found cigarettes, and Reynolds’ participation in a decades-long scheme to hide the dangers of smoking, hooked Tyrone Dixon to nicotine and led to fatal throat cancer.   

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Dixon, 39, died following a 1994 brain hemorrhage, about a year after doctors had diagnosed him with laryngeal cancer. His family says the brain bleed stemmed from the cancer’s metastasis and was caused by Dixon’s 25-plus years of smoking. .

Thursday’s award includes $1.3 million to Dixon’s wife and $350,000 to each of Dixon’s children. Jurors apportioned 58% of responsibility to Reynolds and the remaining 42% to Dixon himself, but found Reynolds liable on a conspiracy claim and concluded punitive damages were potentially warranted.

Punitive proceedings are expected to begin Friday.

During Thursday’s closings, Avera & Smith’s Mark Avera, representing Dixon’s family, requested more than $14.4 million in compensatories for the Dixons, plus a finding that punitives are potentially warranted.

The case is one of thousands of the state’s so-called “Engle progeny” lawsuits against the nation’s tobacco companies. They stem from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision decertifying Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a class-action tobacco suit originally filed in 1994. Although the state’s supreme court ruled that Engle progeny cases must be tried individually, it found plaintiffs could rely on certain jury findings in the original case, including the determination that tobacco companies had placed a dangerous, addictive product on the market and hid the dangers of smoking through much of the 20th century.

In order to be entitled to those findings, however, each Engle progeny plaintiff must prove the smoker at the heart of their case suffered from nicotine addiction that legally caused a smoking-related disease.

Whether Dixon’s cancer stemmed from smoking and whether it ultimately caused his death served as focal points for the eight-day trial.

Reynolds claims Dixon’s small cell laryngeal cancer was a rare form not strongly linked to smoking, and his fatal brain hemorrhage was not caused by the cancer’s metastasis.

During Thursday’s closing arguments, King & Spalding’s Philip Green told jurors there was insufficient evidence to connect Dixon’s cancer with smoking. “If you look at the doctors who actually have treated [Dixon] — Dr. [William] Mendenhall, Dr. [Charles] Riggs:  you heard from them… that they could not tell you that smoking caused Mr. Dixon’s cancer,” Green said.

Green also argued Dixon’s fatal hemorrhage was likely caused by an arteriovenous malformation, or AVM, a knot of abnormal blood vessels in the brain, rather than by the laryngeal tumor’s metastasis. Green argued records indicated Dixon suffered from AVMs, which Green said are prone to cause brain bleeds. And he noted there was no definitive proof Dixon’s tumor had metastasized to his brain. “Nobody did anything to determine what was actually going on in Mr. Dixon’s brain,” Green said.

However, the Dixon family’s attorneys argued documents showed cancer caused Dixon’s hemorrhage. During his closing on Thursday, Avera & Smith’s Rod Smith walked jurors through Dixon’s medical treatment, concluding with records describing tumors in his brain and throughout Dixon’s body. “The man was eaten up with cancer,” Smith said. “What [Reynolds attorneys] want you to believe is that, at the last minute, it was this other thing that somehow happened.”

Smith added decades of research linking laryngeal cancer to cigarettes proved Dixon’s smoking was the culprit “[Reynolds has] been on notice that laryngeal cancer is caused by cigarette smoking since 1964 when the Surgeon general first said it,” Smith told jurors.

Email Arlin Crisco at acrisco@cvn.com.

Related Information

Plaintiffs are represented by Avera & Smith’s Mark Avera and Rod Smith.

R.J. Reynolds is represented by King & Spalding’s Ray Persons and Philip Green.

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Topics: Florida, tobacco, Engle Progeny