Miami, FL— Jurors this week imposed a $2 million punitive damage award against R.J. Reynolds for the throat cancer death of a long-time Florida smoker.
The decision, handed down Monday by a Florida state 11th Circuit Court jury, in Dade County, capped a six-day trial focused on what, if any, financial punishment Reynolds should pay for the 1996 death of Jose Ledo, who had smoked the company’s Winston-brand cigarettes for decades.
This week's award comes five years after another jury handed down a $6 million compensatory award but found Ledo himself 51% responsible for his cancer.
Ledo’s family claims Reynolds caused his cancer by concealing the dangers and addictiveness of smoking. In that 2016 proceeding, a directed verdict was granted in favor of Reynolds as to punitive claims. However, that decision was reversed by Florida's Third District Court of Appeal in 2019, setting up this month’s trial over punitives.
During closings last Friday, the Ledo family’s attorney, The Law of Cannon’s Lakiesha Cannon, walked jurors through evidence she said showed Reynolds knew the cigarettes it sold were dangerous, yet worked for decades to conceal or undercut evidence of those dangers.
“Remember, this is about their decisions. They made those decisions to deceive the American people and Jose Ledo,” Cannon said in requesting a $24.9 million punitive award. “And it’s time for them to be punished.”
But Reynolds argues punitive damages were not warranted in the case. During closings, King & Spalding’s Jeffrey Furr told jurors that plaintiffs offered no evidence that Reynolds was grossly negligent in the design of their Winstons. And he added the company had undergone wholesale changes since Ledo was a smoker, including federal regulation, changes in management, and billions of dollars in payouts, that rendered punitives unnecessary.
“They come up short at every step [of required proof]. They didn’t make it up the first flight,” Furr said, referring to a metaphorical staircase of evidence the plaintiffs needed to climb. “Complete failure of proof.”
The case is among thousands that stem from Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a 1994 Florida state court class-action lawsuit against tobacco companies. The state's supreme court later decertified the class, but ruled Engle progeny cases may be tried individually. Plaintiffs are entitled to the benefit of the jury's findings in the original verdict, including the determination that tobacco companies placed a dangerous, addictive product on the market and hid the dangers of smoking.
To be entitled to those findings, however, each plaintiff must prove the smoker at the heart of their case suffered from nicotine addiction that was the legal cause of a smoking-related disease. The jury in the 2016 trial found in favor of the plaintiff on those issues.
Email Arlin Crisco at email@example.com.
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