MARIANNA, FL - The only "Engle" progeny tobacco trial scheduled for March began this week in Jackson County Circuit Court.
Emmon Smith, a minister who began smoking in the 1940's, later developed lung cancer and sued R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (NYSE: RAI). Smith's case is similar to thousands of individual suits filed against tobacco companies, after the Florida Supreme Court vacated the historic "Engle" class action verdict, and decided each plaintiff's case against tobacco companies must be tried separately.
This is the second time Smith's case has made it all the way to trial. In January of last year, a jury could could not be seated, and the trial was canceled. Jurors in Engle cases must commit to at least two to three weeks in the courtroom which sometimes makes seating a jury difficult.
With a jury successfully empaneled, opening statements finally took place this week. Representing Emmon Smith, attorney Richard Diaz told jurors R.J. Reynolds' products were a major cause of his client's addiction to nicotine, and the company concealed that danger to make huge amounts of money over decades. "Their choices were sales over safety…concealment over disclosure," he said. "You will hear about conspiratorial conduct, and how it lasted for over 50 years."
Diaz went on to describe how as an attorney for the plaintiff, he was responsible for the burden of proof associated with Emmon Smith's claims. "I am happy, I am elated, to have that burden. I'm going to carry that burden, starting today, all the way to the very end of this trial," he said. "By the time you hear the evidence in this case, your verdict will be for Reverend Smith."
Representing R.J. Reynolds, attorney Stephanie Parker of Jones Day told the jury during her opening statement the trial is about Emmon Smith's individual choices. "He chose to smoke, and he knew that smoking was dangerous," said Parker. "He preached about the dangers of smoking in his own church for years."
Parker described how other risk factors, like carcinogenic chemicals present when Smith worked as a farmhand, could have also contributed to his cancer. She made a point of detailing how Smith has been diagnosed with cancer on four separate occasions but is only suing for damages related to the first diagnosis. His current cancer, which is not part of the current suit, spread to the lung as opposed to originating there, and she said the evidence will show proper testing was never done on Smith's initial cancer to verify it actually originated in his lung.
In contrast to the sweeping statements about the tobacco company's conduct over decades made by the plaintiff's attorney, Parker stressed the current trial only involved individual claims. "This case is not about smoking in general, it's not about tobacco companies in general," said Parker. "It's only about Mr. Smith."
The trial before Judge John Fishel is expected to last up to a month and is being webcast live by Courtroom View Network, which has covered nearly all Engle trials to date. The most recent Engle trial resulted in a $20 million verdict, plus millions more in punitive damages, against Lorillard Tobacco Company. R.J. Reynolds could also have to pay millions if the Jackson County jury returns a verdict for the plaintiff in this case.
The case is Emmon Smith v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, No 09-719 CA in Jackson County Circuit Court, Florida.