Viera, FL—A Florida man was trapped by a tobacco industry conspiracy that addicted him to cigarettes and led to his lung cancer death, an attorney for the man’s family told jurors Thursday, as trial opened against cigarette giants Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. Wallace v. Philip Morris, 2014-CA-052862.
“In 1957, as a 15-year old, Robert Wallace became a smoker of Parliament cigarettes and a lifelong customer and addict of the Philip Morris company,” Paige said. "[T]he conspiracy of both Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds had everything to do with Robert Wallace.”
Paige, representing Wallace’s widow, Fontaine, said the scheme involving the two tobacco giants, combined with a culture that embraced cigarettes, led Wallace to start smoking and hooked him for the next 35 years. Paige highlighted tobacco documents he said showed a conspiracy to cast doubt on the mounting evidence of smoking’s dangers, while marketing to youth as “replacement smokers” for its dying slate of older customers.
“It was no secret to [the tobacco industry] that their product caused lung cancer. You’ll see documents decades before they admitted it, decades before,” Gordon & Doner’s Gary Paige told jurors Thursday. “But they told the public the opposite.”
Wallace, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1991, ultimately died of the disease in 1992. Paige told jurors Wallace's nicotine addiction was so strong he could not successfully stop smoking, despite numerous attempts and his own cancer diagnosis. The lawyer added that Wallace's addiction was driven by tobacco industry initatives to keep their smokers hooked. “They calibrate and manipulate nicotine to sustain addiction. That’s what they do. They’re in the business of selling nicotine, an addictive drug,” Paige said. “Ninety percent (of smokers) start as teenagers and half die. That’s their business, and for fifty years they lied about it.”
The Wallace case stems 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 original verdict, including the determination that tobacco companies had placed a dangerous, addictive product on the market and hid the dangers of smoking, if they prove the smoker at the heart of the case suffered from nicotine addiction that was the legal cause of a smoking-related disease such as lung cancer.
However, the defense contends Wallace knew smoking was dangerous for decades but was not sufficiently interested in quitting cigarettes in time to prevent his cancer. During Thursday’s opening statements, Philip Morris' attorney, Shook Hardy's Walter Cofer, argued that details of Wallace's quit attempts were scant and conflicting. He noted that claims Wallace tried a nicotine patch in an unsucessful quit attempt before his lung cancer could not be accurate because the patch did not go on the market until 1992. “Mr. Wallace was one of those people who smoked whenever and wherever he felt like it,” Cofer said.
Womble Carlyle's Kurt Weaver, representing Reynolds, said his client bore no responsibility for Wallace's death because Wallace didn't smoke RJR's cigarettes and there was no direct link between Reynolds marketing and Wallace's smoking. "He couldn't have been addicted to a Reynolds cigarette. He didn't smoke cigarettes because of any Reynolds advertising," Weaver said. "And Robert Wallace was not injured by Reynolds concealing some fact concerning health or addiction."
This is the second time the case has come before CVN cameras. Last year, the case ended in mistrial because of the impending approach of Hurricane Matthew.
Trial is expected to last through next week.
Email Arlin Crisco at [email protected].
Gary Paige, of Gordon & Doner, represents Fontaine Wallace.
Walter Cofer, of Shook Hardy & Bacon, represents Philip Morris.
Kurt Weaver, of Womble Carlyle, represents R.J. Reynolds.
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