Fort Lauderdale, FL—R.J. Reynolds was slapped with a $4 million verdict Friday for the role it played in the cancer death of a Florida smoker. Thomas v. R.J. Reynolds, 2007-CV-036432(19).
The 17th Circuit Court jury issued the award after finding Reynolds’ role in a widespread conspiracy to hide the dangers of smoking throughout the 20th century hooked Marvin Thomas to cigarettes and, ultimately caused the laryngeal cancer that killed him.
However, jurors declined to award punitives in the case and apportioned 55% of the fault for Thomas’ death to Reynolds and 45% to Thomas himself. That allocation will likely reduce the final award to $2.2 million, post-verdict.
Thomas, 60, died in 1992 after smoking up to two packs of cigarettes a day for at least 40 years. His widow, Bertie Thomas, claims Reynolds' involvement in a marketing scheme to conceal the dangers of cigarettes for much of the 20th century led to her husband’s addiction.
During Thursday’s closing arguments, Bertie Thomas’ attorney, Kelley/Uustal’s Eric Rosen, requested $8 million in compensatory damages plus a finding that punitive damages were warranted against the tobacco company.
The case is one of 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, and which had returned a jury verdict for the plaintiffs’ class. 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 for decades.
The eight-day Thomas trial turned on hotly disputed evidence surrounding the Florida man’s smoking history and illness.
The defense contended there was insufficient evidence linking Thomas’ smoking decisions to tobacco industry conduct. During Thursday’s closing arguments, King & Spalding’s Cory Hohnbaum highlighted what he described as key inconsistencies between Bertie Thomas’ deposition statements and her testimony on the witness stand. Hohnbaum noted Bertie Thomas claimed in a despostion that her husband knew the risks of smoking as early as the 1950s, but later contended at trial that he did not know of smoking’s risks for decades. “You can’t base your decision on a changed story, a story that starts out one place, and ends up something else,” Hohnbaum said. “Because that is inherently unreliable.”
Hohnbaum also challenged the connection between Thomas’ smoking and his cancer, noting a discrepancies in both Bertie Thomas’ story and medical records, concerning whether Thomas had tongue cancer or laryngeal cancer. Pointing to medical documents describing Thomas with cancer of the tongue, Hohnbaum told jurors human papillomavirus, commonly known as HPV, and not smoking, was the most typical cause for such cancers. “Seventy to 80% of adults get HPV,” Hohnbaum said. “It’s common for people to get HPV."
However, Rosen argued the weight of medical records, including Thomas’ death certificate, concluded he had laryngeal cancer. Rosen noted that Dr. Howard Abel, plaintiff's cancer expert, testified that smoking was the most cmmon cause of laryngeal cancer, as well as tongue cancers diagosed in the early 1990s. “Whether it was tongue cancer or laryngeal cancer, it was caused by smoking,” Rosen said. “This was a smoking-related cancer.”
Rosen also highlighted decades of tobacco industry documents he said showed a conspiracy to undermine the weight of scientific research on smoking’s risks while falsely marketing light and filtered cigarettes as safe alternatives. Rosen reminded jurors Bertie Thomas testified that her husband switched to light and filtered cigarettes because he said he thought they were healthier. “That’s what he believed,” Rosen said about tobacco industry messaging. “It wasn’t true. It wasn’t real. It was just a ploy to keep people smoking their cigarettes.”
Jurors deliberated about seven hours before reaching their verdict.
Email Arlin Crisco at [email protected].
Bertie Thomas is represented by Kelley/Uustal’s Eric Rosen.
R.J. Reynolds is represented by King & Spalding’s W. Ray Persons and Cory Hohnbaum.