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Tobacco Defense Vets Take On ‘Engle’ Newcomer At Trial Over Smoker’s Death

Posted by David Siegel on Jun 18, 2016 1:39:05 PM

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Plaintiff attorney Andrew Rainer delivers his opening statement. Click here to see video from the trial. 

Jacksonville - A Massachusetts-based personal injury firm taking its first ‘Engle progeny’ tobacco case to trial squared off against two of the industry’s most experienced litigators in a Florida state courtroom on Thursday.

 

Plaintiff Michael Sermons is suing R.J. Reynolds Inc. and Philip Morris USA for the death of his mother, Myra Sermons, who started smoking at the age of 18 in 1950. His suit claims the tobacco companies knew throughout the 1950’s that smoking posed a serious health risk, but kept that knowledge secret for years until the first warning labels began appearing on cigarette packaging in the 1960’s.

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Sermons is represented by Andrew Rainer of Brody Hardoon Perkins & Kesten LLP, a 16-attorney firm based in Boston. The vast majority of Engle trials to date have been handled by local Florida-based plaintiff attorneys, so seeing an out-of-state plaintiffs firm take an Engle case to trial is relatively rare.

Representing the defendants are two litigation powerhouses that are amongst the “go-to” defense firms for Engle tobacco trials. Philip Morris is represented by Shook Hardy & Bacon’s Kenneth Reilly, and RJR is represented by Jones Day’s John Walker, who combined have taken over 20 Engle cases to trial and notched a number of defense wins.

Rainer didn’t specify how much money he would ask for during the trial in his opening statement, but he told jurors the defendants should be liable for both compensatory and punitive damages.

Reilly argued to the jury that Myra Sermons could not prove that she regularly smoked Philip Morris-brand cigarettes prior to warning labels being added to the packaging, and that they were not the cause of her death. Sermons developed both lung cancer and emphysema but died in 1996 from abdominal cancer.

Walker told jurors that Sermons was not addicted to nicotine, characterizing her as a “knowing, willing and volunteering smoker.”

The defense arguments largely mirror those that RJR and Philip Morris made at another ongoing Engle trial that began June 13 in Miami. Both cases are among the thousands of so-called “Engle progeny” tobacco lawsuits that are slowly working their way through state courts all across Florida. In 2000 a jury saddled the tobacco companies with a record-setting $145 billion verdict in a historic class action trial, but that was later thrown out by the Florida Supreme Court which found that tobacco lawsuits needed to be tried individually due to the unique circumstances of each case.

Both trials are being webcast live by Courtroom View Network, which has recorded nearly all of the individual Engle cases to go to trial after the class was decertified.

The Duval County case is Michael Sermons v. R.J. Reynolds, et al., case number 2008-CA-000397 in Florida’s 4th Judicial Circuit.

E-mail David Siegel at [email protected]

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Topics: Products Liability, tobacco, Florida