Each Friday, we highlight the week’s Engle progeny cases and look ahead to next week.
Cory Hohnbaum delivers the defense's opening statement in the punitive phase of Taylor v. R.J. Reynolds. Click here to view the clip.
By Arlin Crisco
Verdict: For the defense.
On Wednesday, jurors rejected Annie Bishop's contention that her deceased husband Robert Ramsey died from cancer because of a decades-long tobacco addiction.
The case turned on the fundamental issues of nicotine addiction and whether it caused the lung cancer that killed Ramsey in 1992. The defense characterized Ramsey as a smoker by choice rather than a nicotine addict. In closings, John Walker, representing R.J. Reynolds, reminded jurors that Ramsey resumed smoking in 1974 after going without cigarettes for more than 21 days because of complications with a collapsed lung. “What does he do with knowledge of the risks, no nicotine in the system, no withdrawal, and a personalized concern about what smoking might be doing to himself?” Walker asked. “He goes back to smoking.”
Verdict: For the plaintiff.
- $4,478,654.92 in compensatories
- $521,345.08 in punitives
Jurors on Friday imposed more than $500,000 in punitive damages against R.J. Reynolds, bringing plaintiff Helen Taylor's total award to $5 million in her suit against the tobacco manufacturer.
In opening statements of the trial's punitive phase Thursday afternoon, R.J. Reynolds attorney Cory Hohnbaum told jurors that they should take into account changes in the tobacco manufacturers' practices when determining a punitive award. "Punitive damages are not needed to prevent Reynolds from concealing and agreeing to conceal information in 2014," Hohnbaum said. "Reynolds in 2014 informs smokers about the dangers and addictiveness of its products."
Earlier on Thursday, the jury awarded Helen Taylor more than $4.478 million in compensatory damages against Reynolds. Taylor's initial suit included Philip Morris as well as R.J. Reynolds, and sought damages for the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and peripheral vascular disease she claimed were caused by her decades of smoking. However, resolution of Taylor’s claims against Philip Morris left Reynolds as the only defendant in this trial. During the trial, the defense highlighted discrepancies in Taylor's testimony concerning how long she had smoked Reynolds cigarettes and argued that she had not smoked Reynolds's Winston cigarettes long enough to cause her lung and artery diseases. However, Taylor's attorneys maintained that Reynolds cigarettes substantially contributed to Taylor's disease, no matter how long she had smoked them.
Verdict (retrial on damages only):
- $900,000 in compensatory damages.
- Phase 2 as to punitives is in progress.
On Wednesday, a jury awarded Dianne Webb $900,000 in compensatory damages for the fatal lung cancer death of her father, James Kayce Horner.
The verdict, stemming from a retrial on damages only, was more than a $7 million drop from the compensatory award in a 2010 trial covered by CVN. The 2010 award was set aside after an appellate court found that it was motivated by hardships Webb and her father suffered that were unrelated to his smoking.
The appellate court's ruling also set aside a $72 million punitive damage award from that 2010 trial. In openings of the punitive phase of proceedings, Webb's attorney, James Gustafson, told jurors that Reynolds's decades-long history concealing the dangers of smoking warranted a large punitive award. "They told the public the opposite of what they knew to be true, for 50 years, over, and over, and over again," Gustafson said. "And they did that for the rest of Jim Horner's life."
However, R.J. Reynolds attorney Jeffrey Furr told jurors on Thursday that the dangers of smoking were widely known for decades and that this popular knowledge mitigated against a large punitive award. "It has been known for about 100 years that smoking is dangerous and shortens life. It has been known for about 100 years that smoking can be very hard to quit, " Furr said. "Terms such as 'smokers' cancer,' 'coffin nail' and other slang terms to refer to the dangers of smoking have been used in public discussions, public discourse, for over 150 years."
Next Week: Both sides are expected to wrap up their cases on punitive damages next week.
In the case's first full week of trial, Diane Schleider's attorneys focused on the addictiveness of cigarettes and their affect on Diane's husband, Andrew Schleider, who they claim died from smoking-related lung cancer in 1997.
On Friday, Dr. David Drobes, an expert on tobacco addiction testified that he considered Andrew Schleider a nicotine addict based on his behavior through his decades of smoking more than a pack-and-a-half of cigarettes a day. Drobes, who reviewed Andrew Schleider's records, testified that Schleider used a variety of methods to quit smoking, including nicotine gum, nicotine patches, and hypnosis. However he was unsuccessful in his quit attempts, and ultimately continuing to smoke even after being diagnosed with lung cancer.Based on testified that he considered Schleider a nicotine addict using both the Fagerstron Test of Nicotine Dependence and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-V.
On cross examination, Drobes stated that he had never spoken with Andrew Schleider's family and acknowledged inconsistencies in his testimony as to how long Andrew Schleider may have gone without cigarettes during his multiple attempts to quit smoking. However, Drobes refused to say that Schleider's attempts to quit smoking, some of which lasted less than a day were weak. "He did not go for very long without smoking in some of the attempts, I think lasted less than a day," Drobes said. "But, I would not say that that was weak in terms of his desire to quit."
Next Week: Plaintiff's attorneys are expected to conclude the bulk of their case in chief.
Trial opened on Thursday in Deborah Perrotto's suit for the cancer death of her husband, Nick Perrotto, which she claims was caused by the tobacco manufacturers' cigarettes.
In opening statements, Deborah Perrotto's attorney, T.Hardee Bass, described Nick Perrotto's smoking history, which Bass said began in 1952, when Nick was 13, and ended only after he'd been diagnosed with lung cancer in 1992. Bass also highlighted what he described as decades of tobacco industry concealment of smoking's dangers. "Their lies knew no bounds," Bass said. "Is this a case about choices and responsibility?" Bass asked. "You bet it is. You bet it is. At the end of this case, we're going to ask you to hold these defendants responsible for all the choices that you're going to hear that the evidence will show that they made."
However, the defense argued that the key choices were those made by Nick Perrotto when he elected to smoke. During opening statements, William McGuire, representing Lorillard, described Perrotto as a smoker by choice who was not affected by tobacco industry statements about smoking. "There are statements by tobacco company representatives: public statements, statements in internal documents that were just dumb, wouldn't be said today, " McGuire noted. "Mr. Perrotto was in charge of his own decisions. He wasn't relying on anything that anyone at any tobacco company said."
Next week: The plaintiff's attorneys will move into the heart of their case in chief.