John Walker delivers the closing argument for the defense in George Dion's suit against R.J. Reynolds for the cancer death of his wife, Marion. Jurors awarded Dion $12 million in compensatory damages plus punitives to be determined in the trial's second phase.
Update 5/12/16: Jurors Thursday imposed a $30,000 punitive award against R.J. Reynolds following yesterday's $12 millon compensatory verdict. Updated details follow the original story below.
Sarasota, FL—A jury Wednesday awarded $12 million, plus potential punitive damages, to the widower of a Florida smoker for the role R.J. Reynolds played in the woman’s cancer death. Dion v. R.J. Reynolds, 13CA5673.
Jurors needed about six hours to conclude R.J. Reynolds marketing designed to hide the dangers of smoking led to Marion Dion’s nicotine addiction and lung cancer death in 1994, at 61.
Dion, who started smoking at 17 and continued for more than 40 years, quit less than two years before doctors diagnosed her with lung cancer.
In addition to the $12 million jurors awarded Dion’s husband, George, they found Reynolds liable for potential punitive damages stemming from Dion’s reliance on a decades-long conspiracy to conceal smoking’s dangers.
The $12 million compensatory award was more than the $11 million Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack's Mark Millard recommended in closing arguments.
The case is one of thousands of similar Florida lawsuits against the nation's tobacco companies. They stem from Engle v. Liggett Group, a 1994 class action claim involving Florida smokers. A jury in that case found tobacco companies knowingly produced dangerous, addictive cigarettes and hid those dangers from the public. The Florida Supreme Court decertified the class on appeal, but its decision allows individual plaintiffs to rely on the jury’s conclusions in the original trial if they can prove the smokers at the center of their cases suffered from nicotine addiction that caused a smoking-related disease.
Wednesday’s verdict capped a week of testimony that focused largely on whether Dion was addicted to nicotine—a question that potentially led to a hung jury in the case last year—and whether she had done enough to try to quit in time to avoid her cancer.
The defense contended Dion smoked by choice and did not sincerely want to quit for most of her 40-plus years of smoking. During Tuesday’s closing arguments, Jones Day’s John Walker told jurors George admitted he saw his wife sincerely attempt to quit smoking only three times in 44 years, while other witnesses never remembered Dion trying to quit. "Mrs. Dion was not sincerely trying to quit smoking," Walker said. "Quitting wasn't a priority for her until the 1990s."
However, George Dion’s attorney, William Wichmann, argued expert testimony applying a variety of addiction tests, from the Heaviness of Smoking Index to criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders established Dion was a nicotine addict whose early failures to quit were caused by her addiction.
By contrast, Wichmann said the defense offered no expert testimony to contravert the issue of addiction. “The only evidence is that (Dion) was addicted to the nicotine in cigarettes," Wichmann said.
Update 5/12/16: Jurors Thursday awarded $30,000 in punitives for the role R.J. Reynolds played in Marion Dion's death. The punitive verdict follows Wednesday's $12 million compensatory award and a day of defense testimony concerning modern-day federal oversight of tobacco and Reynolds forays into allegedly safer alternatives to cigarettes, actions the defense argued mitigated against harsh punitive sanctions. “Nowadays, there are so many watchdogs with their eyes on Reynolds and every cigarette company, that it would be impossible for Reynolds or any other company to do anything like what you saw in the first phase of this case,” Walker said.
Wichmann recommended between $12 million and $24 million in punitives during closings of Thursday's punitive phase, contending the company continued to make the bulk of its profits off of cigarette sales. "The truth is that they’re doing the same thing now that they did in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s,” Wichmann said, noting Reynolds recently bought Lorillard Tobacco Company, maker of Newport, the nation’s number-one selling menthol cigarette brand. “”That’s where they’re making all their money. They haven’t changed.”
Email Arlin Crisco at [email protected].
William Wichmann, of the Law Offices of William J. Wichmann, and Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack's Mark Millard represent George Dion.
Jones Day’s John Walker represents R.J. Reynolds.
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