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RJ Reynolds Cleared of Liability at $3M+ Trial over Ex-Insurance Exec's Heart Disease

Posted by Meghan Gourley on Aug 19, 2016 4:22:06 PM

Miami, FL—Jurors Thursday found a retired insurance executive not addicted to nicotine and cleared cigarette-maker R.J. Reynolds from responsibility for the heart disease he suffered after years of smoking, but not before the panel signaled its struggle to reach a verdict. Wilkins v. R.J. Reynolds, 15-2007-CA-20.15-2007-CA-20. 

After more than six hours of deliberations, the six-member jury concluded 73-year-old William Wilkins, who smoked for 30 years, was not addicted to nicotine, a required element for membership in the so-called "Engle" class of Florida smokers suing the nation's tobacco companies.  

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Less than an hour before reaching its verdict, however, jurors declared themselves at an impasse, prompting Circuit Court Judge William Thomas to issue an Allen charge, requesting the jury resume deliberations. 

 

Wilkins, who began smoking as a 12-year-old Boy Scout, claims Reynolds concealed the dangers of cigarettes for decades.  Williams quit smoking in 1986 after several unsuccessful attempts to stop. His wife, Karen, quit smoking a year later. Six years after he quit, Wilkins was diagnosed with a 98% coronary blockage that required bypass surgery. The blockage reoccurred only 8 weeks later, forcing Wilkins to undergo an angioplasty. 

Wilkins' case stems from Engle v. Liggett Group, a 1994 class action that involved Florida smokers who successfully argued U.S. tobacco companies hid the dangers and addictiveness of cigarettes from consumers. The Florida Supreme Court affirmed the jury's findings but decertified the class. Plaintiffs now 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. 

The week-long trial turned on whether nicotine addiction drove Wilkins' smoking. During Wednesday's closings, Wilkins' attorney, Juan Bauta of The Ferraro Firm, told jurors Wilkins took nearly 2.5 million hits of nicotine over the years he smoked. Because of how accepted smoking was in decades past, Bauta argued, it was far easier to become addicted.

"Cigarette smoking today is a completely different societal norm than it was when the Wilkinses were doing it," Bauta said. "Everybody smoked. All their friends smoked, their family members smoked, you could smoke in the office, you could smoke at work—everywhere."

Bauta suggested a damage award of up to $3.4 million in compensatories, plus a finding of punitive liability, for William and Karen Wilkins. 

But Reynolds attorney Cory Hohnbaum of King & Spalding argued Wilkins knew the dangers of smoking and controlled when he wanted to quit.  "Mr. Wilkins quit smoking when he wanted to. Not when his kids wanted him to, not when his wife wanted him to, but when he wanted to," Hohnbaum," said in closings.

Reminding jurors of Wilkins' testimony, Hohnbaum argued nothing Reynolds could have done would have led Wilkins to stop smoking sooner. "Mr. Wilkins himself, this was his opportunity to come in and tell you whether there was anything a tobacco company could’ve done to make him quit sooner. It was his opportunity from that witness stand to tell you, what was it, what could they have told [him], and what was his answer? He couldn’t think of a single thing."

Related information

Read about the trial's opening. 

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Topics: Wilkins v. R.J. Reynolds, tobacco, Engle Progeny, Florida