Miami—R.J. Reynolds was cleared of responsibility Tuesday for the throat cancer a Cuban immigrant claims was caused by years of smoking the company’s cigarettes. Morales v. R.J. Reynolds, 2007-CA-016277.
Jurors in the state’s 11th Judicial Circuit, in Dade County, needed about an hour to reject Barbara Morales’ claim that an addiction to Reynolds cigarettes led to laryngeal cancer that ultimately cost her larynx.
Gerson & Schwartz’s Philip Gerson requested damages in the “millions and millions of dollars” in compensatories, plus a finding that punitives were potentially warranted, during Tuesday’s closings. “A few million dollars in this case would not be enough because you’re looking at a life that has been ruined over a 40-year period.”
Morales, 70, was born in Cuba and smoked Cuban cigarettes for years before immigrating to the U.S. in 1980 and eventually smoking Reynolds’ Winston and Salem brands. Doctors diagnosed her with laryngeal cancer in 1993, and Morales’ voicebox was ultimately removed as part of treatment, leaving her unable to speak without assistance.
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.
Because Morales smoked Cuban cigarettes for about 19 years before coming to the U.S., a key issue at trial concerned what role Reynolds cigarettes, as opposed to Cuban cigarettes, played in Morales’ cancer.
During Tuesday’s closings, Gerson walked jurors through evidence he said showed Morales became a heavier smoker after she came to the U.S., ultimately smoking more U.S.-brand cigarettes than their Cuban counterparts in a shorter time.
Gerson then reminded jurors of testimony from Morales’ treating physician, otolaryngologist Dr. Moises Mitrani, that concluded Morales’ whole smoking history, including Reynolds brands, caused her cancer. “It was the cumulative effect of all of the cigarettes.” Gerson said. “All of them in a constant sequence, if you line them up end-to-end, every single one of them contributed substantially to causing her disease."
But the defense argued Morales’ roughly two decades of smoking Cuban cigarettes, made from black tobacco that is more carcinogenic to the throat, was the true cause of her cancer.
During Tuesday’s closings, Bayuk pointed to testimony suggesting Morales had smoked Reynolds brands for less than seven years before her cancer diagnosis. And he highlighted Mitrani’s acknowledgement that Morales’ smoking history in Cuba alone was “sufficient” to cause her cancer. “You all know what the word ‘sufficient’ means,” Bayuk said. “‘Sufficient’ means, that’s all you need.”
This is not the first trial in the case. Two years ago, the case ended in mistrial when an emergency rendered a juror unable to continue during deliberations.
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Barbara Morales is represented by Philip Gerson and Edward Schwartz.
R.J. Reynolds is represented by Frank Bayuk, Joyce McKinniss, and Ken Gross.
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