Miami, FL—The daughter of a decades-long smoker said her father suffered from lung cancer symptoms long before the cutoff date for filing suit under a Florida class action against the nation's tobacco companies, as trial continued this week against R.J. Reynolds. Mathis v. R.J. Reynolds, 2007-CA-47118.
While occasionally breaking into tears during Thursday's testimony, Robert Mathis' daughter, Aadron, told jurors her father suffered headaches and severe hiccups, as well as a cough that progressed to "hacking," as many as two years before doctors diagnosed him with lung cancer.
However, no medical records exist to document the alleged cough, fatigue, weight loss, or other symptoms of Robert Mathis' lung cancer until after his January 1997 diagnosis. The disease ultimately spread to his brain, and Mathis died in June 1997 after smoking 2 to 3 packs of cigarettes a day for nearly 50 years. He was never able to quit.
His widow, Hazel Mathis, claims R.J. Reynolds, which made cigarettes Mathis smoked, is responsible for her husband's death by hiding the dangers of smoking for much of the 20th century.
Reynolds counters the suit is time-barred because Mathis developed cancer after the cutoff date to file a claim in the class action from which the Mathis suit stems, Engle v. Liggett Group. That 1994 class action involved Florida smokers who successfully sued U.S. tobacco companies after claiming they hid the dangers and addictiveness of cigarettes from the public. The Florida Supreme Court affirmed the jury's findings but decertified the class. To prevail, plaintiffs such as Mathis 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. However, to fall within the ambit of the Engle class, a smoking-related disease must "manifest" itself before November 21, 1996.
Robert Mathis was diagnosed with lung cancer 71 days after that date.
Beyond the timing of Mathis' cancer, much of the trial has focused on the question of Mathis' alleged nicotine addiction. Last week, Dr. Richard D. Hurt, retired medical director of the Mayo Clinic's Nicotine Dependence Center, told jurors he believed Mathis was "unequivocally, absolutely" addicted to cigarettes, based on a review of his medical records.
Aadron Mathis bolstered the claim of addiction, saying her father was a smoker for as long as she could remember. "He couldn't help himself," she said. "He got to the point where he would almost light one cigarette off of another."
Mathis said that her father needed cigarettes so badly he continued to ask for them even while in the hospital during the last months of his life. A smoker herself, Mathis told jurors she would take him outside to smoke, often against the pleas of her mother.
"The damage is already done. Let him smoke," Mathis said she told her mother. "He was in the hospital hooked up to IV. He would have other things hooked up and he wanted to smoke and when he couldn't smoke, laying in the hospital, he would tremble and shake because he needed to smoke."
The defense contends Robert Mathis was a smoker by choice, not because of addiction, and did not make a concerted effort to quit cigarettes. On cross-exam, Aadron Mathis acknowledged she did not know whether her father continued to smoke cigarettes while allegedly smoking a pipe and cigars as a cigarette replacement. She also told jurors she believed her father quickly gave up nicotine gum after struggling with it. "I knew he wasn't going to put himself through that. He couldn't even chew it."
Trial resumes Thursday after an extended recess.
William Wichmann, of the Law Offices of William J. WIchmann, represents Hazel Mathis.
Ray Persons, of King & Spalding, represents R.J. Reynolds.