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R.J. Reynolds Notches Win at Trial Over Smoker's Fatal Mouth Cancer

Posted by Arlin Crisco on Jan 26, 2018 10:30:19 AM

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DeLand, FL—Jurors Wednesday cleared R.J. Reynolds of responsibility for the oral cancer that killed a 53-year-old smoker.  Kelsey v. R.J. Reynolds, 2007 33215 CICI.

The jury, in Florida’s 7th Judicial Circuit, in Volusia County, rejected the contention an addiction to nicotine caused the mouth cancer that killed William Kelsey in 1995.

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Kelsey began smoking as a teenager and continued for 35 years, before cancer surgery rendered him physically unable to smoke. His wife, Dorothy, claims R.J. Reynolds hooked Kelsey on its cigarettes and drove a decades-long conspiracy to hide the dangers of smoking, which ultimately led to her husband’s death.

During Wednesday’s closings, William Wichmann, of the Law Offices of William Wichmann, P.A., requested up to $20 million in compensatory damages for Kelsey’s family, plus a finding punitive damages were warranted.

Wednesday’s verdict effectively concluded Kelsey was not a member of the Engle class of plaintiffs suing the nation’s tobacco companies in Florida. The case is one of thousands stemming from Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a Florida state court class-action lawsuit originally filed in 1994. After a trial victory for the class members, the state’s supreme court ultimately 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 case's original verdict, including the determination that tobacco companies had placed a dangerous, addictive product.on the market and hid the dangers of smoking.

To be entitled to those findings, however, individual plaintiffs must prove the smoker at the heart of their case suffered from nicotine addiction that was the legal cause of a smoking-related disease such as mouth cancer.

Much of the nine-day trial focused on the link between Kelsey’s smoking and his cancer. Kelsey was a regular drinker and a denture wearer who allegedly had a history of poor oral hygiene throughout his life, risk factors for mouth cancer in addition to smoking.

During Wednesday’s closing arguments, Wichmann told jurors medical evidence established that smoking was the driving cause behind Kelsey’s cancer. The lawyer noted testimony from one expert linking Kelsey’s smoking to his oral cancer. And Wichmann added that up to 85% percent of oral cancer in the U.S. is caused primarily by smoking.

“It’s the smoke in cigarettes that has 60-70 carcinogens with every puff that causes cancer and that caused William Clifton Kelsey’s oral cavity cancer,” Wichmann said. “That’s the substantial contributing factor in this case.”

But the defense contended it was impossible to prove Kelsey would have avoided his mouth cancer if he had not smoked. During Wednesday’s closings, Jones Day’s John Walker told jurors the weight of medical testimony, as well as information from the American Cancer Society established that there was no way to tease out what affect any one risk factor had on the development of mouth cancer. “How can the plaintiffs ask you to come back with a verdict that says that cigarette smoking contributed substantially to Mr. Kelsey’s oral cavity cancer when every single medical witness in the case and the American Cancer Society have said it can’t be done as a matter of medicine and science?” Walker asked.

The jury needed less than 90 minutes to reach its verdict.

Email Arlin Crisco at acrisco@cvn.com

Related Information

Dorothy Kelsey is represented by William Wichmann, of the Law Offices of William Wichmann, P.A.

R.J. Reynolds is represented by Jones Day’s John Walker.

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Topics: Kelsey v. R.J. Reynolds, Engle Progeny, tobacco, Florida