West Palm Beach, FL—A Harvard pulmonologist testified this week he has "no doubt in his mind" that a former railroad worker who was a 3-pack-a-day smoker now suffers from emphysema because of his 30-year smoking history, rather than exposure to locomotive fumes, as trial continued in the worker's suit against R.J. Reynolds. Hackimer v. R.J. Reynolds, 2014-CA-010849.
"It's generally accepted in pulmonary medicine that there is a threshold amount of smoking beyond which a given patient may get COPD. It's 40 pack years that most pulmonologists, including me, begin to think about the patient being at risk for COPD," said Dr. David Systrom, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, who testified this week at trial in John Hackimer's suit against Reynolds. "Our best estimates from the medical records and Mr. Hackimer are that he smoked as much as 90 pack years, so yes is the answer. He smoked more than enough to develop COPD."
Hackimer, 70, claims Reynolds concealed the dangers of the cigarettes he smoked for decades, causing his nicotine addiction and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Reynolds lawyers counter that Hackimer's respiratory disease is likely caused by his decades of exposure to harmful fumes and chemicals during his career as a locomotive engineer. At trial, Reynolds offered evidence of a 1999 vocational report Hackimer completed when he applied for full-time disability. In it, Hackimer listed his work history as a train master and locomotive engineer during various time periods and companies that spanned 1969 through 1999. Hackimer noted in the report that he was exposed to excessive noise and fumes from locomotives and hand wrote "operated electric and diesel locomotives in all weather in all weather conditions—diesel fumes" throughout the 30-year period.
During cross-exam Monday, Systrom acknowledged he has seen very few cases involving railroad workers like Hackimer, and he added that he typically consults with an occupational medical expert in occupational exposure cases.
However, Systrom said Hackimer's primary symptom—shortness of breath—is indicative of emphysema, and a tell-tale sign of a heavy smoker. Hackimer showed no signs of chronic bronchitis, the other variety of COPD, which is more indicative of exposure to toxins and fumes.
Hackimer himself estimates that only about 25 percent of his time on the railroad was spent around diesel trains, while the remaining time was spent either on electric trains or in an office.
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.
Closings in the case are expected next Tuesday.
John & Deborah Hackimer are represented by The Alvarez Law Firm's Alex Alvarez.
R.J. Reynolds is represented by Jeffrey Furr, of King & Spalding.
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