Miami—Jurors Tuesday cleared R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris of fault for the lung cancer that killed a Florida smoker. Mooney v. R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris, 2011-CA-40815.
Jurors needed less than five hours to conclude Barbara Meachem was addicted to the nicotine in cigarettes she smoked for more than four decades, but that nicotine addiction did not cause the small-cell lung cancer that killed her in 1993.
Meachem began smoking Reynolds’ Pall Mall cigarettes in the late 1940s, when she was about 15, and more than a decade before health warnings began to appear on cigarette packs. She later smoked cigarettes made by Philip Morris and continued smoking until her death.
Meachem’s family claims Reynolds and Philip Morris conspired to hide the dangers and addictiveness of cigarettes for decades, hooking Meachem on nicotine and ultimately causing her fatal cancer.
The Ferraro Law Firm’s Allan Kaiser, representing Meachem’s family, requested up to $16.7 million, plus a finding of punitive liability during Monday’s closing arguments.. “What’s tragic here is that this was a preventable death,” Kaiser said.
The Meachem case is one of thousands of similar Florida lawsuits against the nation's tobacco companies that 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.
Tuesday’s verdict in the week-long trial turned on whether nicotine addiction legally caused Meachem’s cancer. During Monday’s closings, Kaiser reminded jurors Dr. Judith Prochaska, an addiction expert, testified Meachem’s need to smoke to satisfy her nicotine addiction caused her to take in decades of carcinogenic toxins.
Kaiser also noted Meachem tried multiple times to quit smoking over the course of decades, using methods ranging from acupuncture to nicotine gum. “People that came in here said she was strongly motivated [to quit smoking]. She couldn’t have tried harder,” Kaiser said. “There’s no evidence that she said, ‘Look, everyone’s got to die sometime, I’ll just wait and enjoy my cigarettes.’”
But Philip Morris contended Meachem chose to smoke despite knowing the health risks of cigarettes, and her choice, rather than addiction, caused her lung cancer. During Monday’s closings Beck Redden’s Kathleen Gallagher argued Prochaska could not say Meachem became addicted to nicotine before 1969, five years after the U.S. Surgeon General’s Report linked smoking to lung cancer and two years after Meachem warned her daughter about smoking’s health risks. “The reason that Ms. Meachem is continuing to smoke [during that time] is because she wants to smoke, and she has heard of these warnings, she knows of the health risks of smoking,” Gallagher said. “As Mr. Kaiser told you in opening statements a week ago, you’d have to be living under a rock not to know smoking was bad for you.”
Womble Carlyle’s Randal Baringer, representing Reynolds, added Meachem smoked Reynolds' Pall Malls sporadically, not becoming a daily smoker until years after her first cigarette, and she stopped smoking the Reynolds brand nearly a decade before the 1969 addiction date Prochaska gave. “That insignificant smoking of Pall Mall. . . [stopped] more than 30 years before Mrs. Meachem was diagnosed with lung cancer,” Baringer said.
The parties' attorneys could not immediately be reached for comment.
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