$34.7M Total Verdict Hits R.J. Reynolds in Retrial Over Florida Smoker's Throat Cancer Death

Posted by Arlin Crisco on Apr 17, 2024 3:18:17 PM


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Gainesville FL— Jurors last week handed down a $34.7 million total verdict against R.J. Reynolds after finding the company responsible for the throat cancer death of a Florida man. Bessent-Dixon v. R.J. Reynolds, 2015-CA-002554. 

The verdict, in Florida’s Eighth Judicial Circuit, includes nearly $9 million in compensatory damages and more than $25.7 million in punitives against Reynolds for the 1994 death of Tyrone Dixon, who had smoked cigarettes made by the company's predecessors for more than a quarter-century. Dixon's family claims that Reynolds is responsible for his fatal throat cancer by concealing the dangers of smoking across much of the latter half of the 20th century. 

The total verdict handed down last week far exceeds awards in previous proceedings in the case. In 2018, a jury awarded $2 million in compensatories and found punitives warranted in the case, but the punitive portion of the bifurcated proceeding was declared a mistrial, setting up a 2019 punitives-only trial in which jurors awarded $13.5 million in damages. However, the awards in those prior proceedings were thrown out by the Florida First District Court of Appeal in 2021, which concluded the trial court erred in failing to properly instruct jurors on the issue of fraudulent concealment. 


And the case is one of thousands that stem from Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a 1994 Florida state court class-action lawsuit against Reynolds and the nation's other tobacco companies. After a trial court verdict in favor of the plaintiffs on defective design, fraud, and conspiracy claims, the Florida Supreme Court decertified the class. It ruled individual, so-called, “Engle progeny” plaintiffs can recover only if they prove the smoker at the heart of each case was addicted to cigarettes that caused a smoking-related illness.

The nine-day trial focused in large part on what influenced Dixon’s smoking decisions. During last Thursday’s closings in the trial’s first-phase, on class membership and compensatories, King & Spalding’s Ursula Henninger, representing Reynolds, highlighted evidence that she said showed Dixon smoked despite knowing the dangers of cigarettes. 

Henninger told jurors evidence showed Dixon was warned repeatedly about the risks of cigarettes, but disregarded those warnings and was not interested in quitting in time to avoid his cancer. “Not all smokers want to quit,” Henninger said. “And you also learned that sometimes smokers don’t even try to quit. Smokers like Mr. Dixon, who spent years, and years, and years smoking without even attempting to quit, saying he wanted to quit, or even [taking] any kind of action. He just smoked.”

But Avera & Smith’s Rod Smith, representing Dixon’s family, argued that Reynolds and its predecessors’ roles in concealing the dangers of smoking hooked Dixon to cigarettes, ultimately leading to his fatal cancer. 

During last Thursday’s closings, Smith walked jurors through evidence, including tobacco industry documents he said showed Reynolds and its predecessors participated in a decades-long campaign to cast doubt on smoking’s risks, while marketing specifically to Black Americans like Dixon with menthol cigarettes such as the "Kool" and "Newport" brands Dixon smoked throughout his life.

“They were marketing and targeting young African Americans. They targeted African Americans extremely successfully,” Smith said, adding that evidence showed there was a widespread, but false, public belief menthol cigarettes were safer than non-menthol brands. “They believed menthol cigarettes were safer. They thought they were less hazardous, they thought they were easier to inhale… [but they were] more dangerous.”

Although jurors apportioned 60 percent of responsibility to Reynolds and the remaining 40 percent to Dixon, the tobacco company will be liable for the full share of the award because of jurors' findings against it on the case's fraud and conspiracy claims.

Email Arlin Crisco at

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article contained a typo in identification. That has been corrected. 

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