Boston, MA— Jurors Tuesday handed down a $200 million verdict against R.J. Reynolds at trial over the cancer death of a Massachusetts woman who had claimed that free, sample cigarettes started her on the road to more than 50 years of smoking and nicotine addiction. Jones v. R.J. Reynolds, 1684CV03277.
The award includes $50 million in compensatory damages and $150 million in punitives for the 2018 lung cancer death of 70-year-old Rita Jones. The Massachusetts woman began smoking as a teenager in about 1964 and continued throughout much of the rest of her life, favoring “Newport” cigarettes originally made by Lorillard and now under the umbrella of R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard’s successor-in-interest.
Tuesday’s verdict, reached after the Suffolk County (Massachusetts) Superior Court jury deliberated across three days, found Reynolds responsible for Lorillard’s conduct on design-defect, negligent distribution, and conspiracy claims.
Jurors apportioned 3% of fault to Jones and 97% to Lorillard. However, because Jones’ family prevailed on the design defect claim, the award will not be offset by that apportionment.
Before her death, Jones contended she received free samples of Newport cigarettes as a teenager, given out as part of Lorillard’s marketing and distribution initiatives. Among the key points of contention during the trial were details surrounding those initiatives and their impact on Jones’ smoking.
During last Friday’s closings, Reynolds’ attorney, Jones Day’s Emily Baker, walked jurors through Lorillard’s sampling initiatives at the time, arguing that the goal of the program was to encourage current, adult smokers to switch to Newports rather than to develop new smokers. Baker said Lorillard’s policy prohibited giving cigarettes to anyone under 21, and she said that Jones herself did not know whether the individuals who gave her free cigarettes were actually affiliated with Lorillard.
Baker also argued that any free samples Jones received did not materially impact her smoking, noting that Jones’ sister testified Jones had started smoking before she received sample Newports.
“Mrs. Jones was already a smoker when she got those free cigarettes,” Baker said. “You take those free cigarettes out of the mix, and Mrs. Jones is still a smoker.”
But the Jones family’s attorney, Walter Kelley, of Bernheim Kelley Battista, countered that Lopes’ testimony concerned another, later event after Jones first received Newport samples. And he highlighted testimony from Jones and others concerning how Jones first started smoking with a sample pack of Newports given to her from a table displaying the products.
Kelley also highlighted evidence he said showed Lorillard sampling practices were part of a long-standing initiative targeting minors, including a Lorillard document from 1960 offering a free sample pack of cigarettes to a high school freshman, as well as correspondence from R.J. Reynolds in the 80s, expressing concern over Lorillard’s sampling practices in the area.
“[Jones] did exactly what they… wanted her to do. She took the cigarettes, she smoked them, and when she bought a pack of cigarettes, she chose Newports,” Kelley said. “And then she was loyal to the brand for 51 years, smoking two packs a day. That’s their ideal customer.”
In an email to CVN after the verdict, Kelley said he had been confident the jury would rule in his favor.
“Rita's story began in 1964 with a heartless industry who chose profits over people and it ended in 2018 with needless human tragedy,” Kelley said. As long, difficult and expensive as the fight was, we always trusted we would prevail, because the evidence, the truth, and the law were always on our side."
And Dolan Dolinsky Rosenblum Bluestein’s Randy Rosenblum, who also represented the Jones family, expressed gratitude to the jury for working through a difficult case.
“Proving a breach of warranty claim can be challenging because the evidence tends to be very technical and scientific. We tried, through the expert testimony we presented, to present that evidence to the jury in as simple a form as possible,”” Rosenblum said. “The jury listened carefully to the evidence, was attentive during the entire length of the trial and deliberated for almost 13 hours before reaching its verdict.”
A Reynolds representative declined to comment, citing the pendency of the case.
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.