$133K Award a Sliver of the Millions Sought in Cancer Trial Against Tobacco Companies

Posted by Arlin Crisco on Jul 7, 2016 2:55:58 PM


Kenneth Reilly delivers his closing statement for Philip Morris, accused along with R.J. Reynolds of responsibility for Myra Sermons' lung cancer and emphysema. Jurors found the companies liable but awarded only $133,300, a fraction of the more than $4.7 million Sermons' son sought in compensatory damages alone. 

Jacksonville, FL—While the nation’s two largest tobacco companies were found partially liable for causing a Florida smoker's lung disease and cancer, jurors placed the lion’s share of responsibility on the smoker and awarded only a fraction of the damages her son sought. Sermons v. R.J. Reynolds, 2008-CA-000397. 

Jurors awarded $133,300 to the family of Myra Sermons after concluding nicotine addiction and decades of smoking cigarettes made by R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris caused Sermons’ lung cancer and emphysema.

Sermons began smoking at about 18 and continued for more than 40 years, smoking up to three packs a day. Sermons continued smoking despite undergoing successful lung cancer surgery in the early 1990s. She died in 1996 after suffering from colon cancer.

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Sermons’ son, Michael, claims a decades-long scheme by Reynolds and Philip Morris to hide the dangers of smoking caused his mother’s nicotine addiction and ultimately her lung diseases.

The jury's award includes $65,000 in compensatory damages awarded last Friday and $68,300 in punitive damages imposed against the tobacco companies.

Jurors found Sermons herself 80% responsible for the smoking-related diseases, apportioning 15% of responsibility to Philip Morris and 5% to Reynolds.

Brody Hardoon Perkins & Kesten’s Andrew Ranier, representing Michael Sermons, requested more than $4.7 million in compensatories alone for his mother’s pain, suffering, and disfigurement.  

The case is one of 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.

The nearly three-week trial turned largely on whether Sermons was duped by decades of tobacco company messaging allegedly spun to conceal the dangers of cigarettes. During closing statements in the trial’s phase on class membership, Ranier argued evidence showed Sermons was among generations of those who fell prey to tobacco industry deception. “For 40 years, there was a very conscious, very deliberate effort to conceal the dangers and addictiveness of smoking,” Ranier said.

However, the defense countered that Sermons was well aware of smoking’s dangers throughout most of her life, yet chose to continue smoking. During closing arguments in the trial’s phase on class membership and liability, Shook Hardy’s Kenneth Reilly, representing Philip Morris, reminded jurors Sermons stopped smoking while she was pregnant in the 1950s, only to resume after each birth. “That tells you… she’s aware of the health risks of smoking, she can control her smoking, she can quit when she wants to, and if she decides she wants to resume, she can resume,” Reilly said. "She’s in her 20’s, she’s certainly old enough to decide whether she’s going to continue to smoke or not.”

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Related Information

Andrew Ranier, of Brody, Hardoon, Perkens & Kesten LLP, and Tim Howard, of Howard Justice, represent Michael Sermons.

John Walker, of Jones Day, represents R.J. Reynolds.

Shook Hardy’s Kenneth Reilly represents Philip Morris.  

Read more about the trial.

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Topics: Negligence, tobacco, Florida, Sermons v. R.J. Reynolds