Tampa, FL--R.J. Reynolds was cleared of liability Wednesday for the death of a Florida woman when jurors rejected a claimed link between the company's cigarettes and her respiratory disease. Gay v. R.J. Reynolds, 07-CA-014649.
The jury, in Florida’s 13th Circuit Court, in Hillsborough County, needed about nine hours to conclude that while Vivian Gay was addicted to cigarettes, Reynolds' cigarettes did not cause her death from complications related to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.
Gay, 69, died in 2007, more than a decade after she was diagnosed with COPD, and following more than a half century of smoking, according to her family. Her husband, Alvin Gay contends Reynolds, makers of the cigarettes Lee smoked for years, was to blame for her death by conspiring with other tobacco companies to hide the dangers of smoking throughout much of the 20th century.
The case is among thousands of Florida’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 had conspired to hide the dangers of smoking through much of the 20th century.
In order to be entitled to those findings, however, each plaintiff must prove class membership by showing nicotine addiction legally caused a smoking-related disease such as COPD.
Wednesday's verdict largely turned on the link between Gay’s claimed nicotine addiction, her smoking of Reynolds cigarettes, and her respiratory disease.
During Tuesday’s closing arguments, the Gay family’s attorney, Knopf Bigger’s Brent Bigger, told jurors evidence showed Gay was so addicted to cigarettes she could not successfully quit, despite multiple attempts and her worsening respiratory disease. “Being diagnosed with COPD and still smoking, it’s one of the hallmarks of addiction unfortunately,” Bigger said. “You heard the testimony that she was really almost unable to breathe, and get air into her lungs, period. And she still was compelled to get smoke into her lungs because of her addiction.”
But the defense focused on the scant information concerning what cigarettes Gay smoked for most of her life, arguing there was no proof of what brands Gay smoked before 1980.
And, they contended Gay's quit attempts were made to placate her husband, who pleaded for her to stop, rather than because she had any desire to quit.
During Wednesday’s closings, King & Spalding’s Jeffrey Furr pointed to evidence that millions of addicted smokers have successfully quit over the years. By contrast, Furr reminded jurors that Gay’s quit attempts never lasted at least 24 hours, which he said experts described as the benchmark of a serious quit attempt. “She loved to smoke and did not want to quit,” Furr said. “That’s why she kept smoking when others quit.”
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alvin Gay is represented by Knopf | Bigger’s Brent Bigger.
R.J. Reynolds is represented by King & Spalding’s Jeffrey Furr and Kathryn Lehman.
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