$20M Punitive Award Follows Battle Over RJR Conduct, Wraps $34.7M Tobacco Trial Over Vet's Fatal Cancer

Posted by Arlin Crisco on Sep 14, 2015 7:10:13 PM

Rodney Smith tells jurors changes to R.J. Reynolds marketing should not mitigate against punitive damages for the harm the company caused to Garry O'Hara. Jurors awarded $20 million in punitive damages Friday, capping a $34.7 million award in the case. 

Pensacola, FL—A $20 million punitive verdict against R.J. Reynolds Friday afternoon capped a trial in which jurors awarded more than $34 million to the family of an Air Force veteran who died of cancer after decades of smoking Reynolds cigarettes. O’Hara v. R.J. Reynolds, 2007-CA-003065.

Watch Video from Tobacco TrialsJurors deliberated less than 90 minutes Friday before awarding Colette O’Hara $20 million in punitive damages in her suit claiming her husband, Garry O’Hara died of cancer caused by R.J. Reynolds cigarettes and a deceptive marketing scheme that fueled her husband’s addiction to nicotine.

O’Hara’s attorneys had requested up to $25 million in punitives during closing arguments Friday.

Garry O’Hara, a Vietnam vet decorated for his role surrounding the response to the assassination attempt on Alexander Haig in 1979, was diagnosed with cancer in 1985, two years after retiring from the Air Force. O’Hara, who died from the disease, smoked up to 3 packs of cigarettes a day for more than 20 years. 

Friday’s punitive verdict followed a Thursday award of $14.7 million in compensatories, including $10 million to Colette O’Hara and $2 million each to two of the O’Haras’ children, Valerie and Michael.

Whether increased tobacco regulation and changes to Reynolds over the last two decades mitigated against punitives was a central issue in the trial’s second phase. During closings Friday afternoon, Jones Day's David Monde reminded jurors of wholsesale changes in Reynolds leadership since the years they were found to have deceived the public. "One of the things you have to ask yourself is, 'If we award punitive damages, who is it that we're punishing?' The RJR... leadership that you heard about (allegedly directing depective marketing tactics): they're gone."

Monde reminded jurors of testimony from Dr. James Figlar, a Reynolds vice president who detailed modern-day Reynolds anti-smoking education initiatives and increased federal regulation on cigarettes. "(The tobacco companies) are on lockdown. They can't change a product. They can't change the additives in cigarettes," Monde said. "You've got to ask: 'Is deterrence needed here?' There's oversight (now)."

However, Avera and Smith’s Rodney Smith, representing O'Hara, argued Friday that modern controls on cigarette marketing did not make up for decades of deception that caused O'Hara's death. “(R.J. Reynolds attorneys) told you in the beginning that Mr. O'Hara was the focus of the case. Recall that. Today they bring in someone who wants to talk about their company in 2015," Smith said.  "It's not unusual on judgment day in any setting (for a defendant to say), 'I'm not like I was back then. I want you to forget what I did back then.'

You can't forget what (Reynolds) did back then because this case is about Garry O'Hara and those people of his time, and what they knew and what they had access to, and what it did to them. That's it," Smith said. 

The O’Hara suit is among thousands of Florida cases claiming the nation's tobacco companies manufactured a dangerous product and deceived the public. The cases arise from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision decertifying Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a class action suit originally filed in 1994. The state’s supreme court ruling requires each Engle plaintiff establish class membership individually, by proving nicotine addiction that caused a smoking-related disease. Once plaintiffs prove class membership, they can rely on certain jury findings in the original verdict, including the determination that tobacco companies sold a dangerous, addictive product and conspired to hide the dangers of cigarettes.

Neither the parties' attorneys nor representatives for Reynolds could be reached for comment

Read complete coverage of the verdict in the trial's first phase.

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Related Information

Colette O'Hara is represented by Avera & Smith's Mark Avera and Rodney Smith. R.J. Reynolds is represented by Jones Day's David Monde. 

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Topics: Negligence, Products Liability, tobacco, Engle Progeny, Florida, O'Hara v. R.J. Reynolds