As Trial Opens Against RJR, Attorneys Argue Whether Smoker's Heart Disease Claim Is Time Barred

Posted by Arlin Crisco on Nov 15, 2018 6:50:06 PM


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Miami—What caused the coronary heart disease that forced a Florida smoker to undergo a triple bypass at 45, and when that disease first occurred, took center stage as trial opened against R.J. Reynolds last week. Rouse v. R.J. Reynolds, 2017CA017202.

Paul Rouse, now 64, underwent a triple heart bypass in 1999, and claims the coronary heart disease that forced the bypass was caused by 30-plus years of smoking up to three packs of cigarettes a day and R.J. Reynolds’ involvement in a scheme to hide the dangers of smoking through much of the 20th century.

During opening statements last Friday, Rouse’s attorney, The Alvarez Law Firm’s Alex Alvarez, told jurors Rouse, who grew up in rural North Carolina tobacco country and was a regular smoker by the time he reached high school, was one of millions of Americans targeted by tobacco messaging designed to undercut growing scientific evidence of smoking’s health risks.

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Alvarez highlighted documents that he said showed cigarette companies engaged in a sweeping campaign through much of the latter half of the 1900s designed to sow division over whether smoking was addictive and dangerous. “They hired politicians, they hired scientists, they hired doctors to cast doubt by spreading lies that would affect millions of people,” Alvarez said. “They’d known about [the dangers of smoking] for decades, and they continued to lie to the American people, to smokers, so that their smokers would keep buying their cigarettes.”

That campaign, Alvarez told jurors, hooked Rouse to cigarettes for more than three decades and numerous failed quit attempts. Only after the heart bypass in 1999, Alvarez said, did Rouse successfully stop smoking.

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, in which jurors found for the plaintiffs. 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 between May 5, 1990 and November 21, 1996.

But Reynolds contends Rouse bears responsibility for any smoking-related illness because he could have quit smoking decades before the heart problems that required the triple bypass. During his opening statement, King & Spalding’s Cory Hohnbaum told jurors evidence would show Rouse successfully quit “cold turkey” after his 1999 bypass. “The evidence will show he could’ve put those cigarettes down and never smoked again in 1970, he could’ve done it in 1975, he could’ve done it in ‘85, he could’ve done it at any point in time,” Hohnbaum said. “And the reason we know he could’ve done it at any point in time is [that] he did it. He did it in 1999.”

Hohnbaum argued that, in any event, Rouse’s claim was time barred because his heart disease did not manifest until after the November 21, 1996 cutoff date. Hohnbaum told jurors Rouse said in deposition testimony that the chest pain that led to his 1999 heart bypass was the first time he had experienced heart problems. And Hohnbaum added Rouse had never followed up with a doctor following a 1995 EKG. “Between 1995 and 1999 he never experienced chest pain,”Hohnbaum said.  

But Alvarez countered evidence would prove Rouse suffered from heart disease before the Engle cutoff date. Alvarez noted medical records in 1999 describing Rouse as suffering from chest pain for five years, and said the severity of Rouse’s heart disease in 1999 proved it was a long-standing condition. “You don’t get coronary artery disease [severe] enough that it needs three bypass vessels overnight. It takes decades to get there. It’s a long, slow, progressive problem,” Alvarez said. “And you’re going to have symptoms for years before that. And we’ve got evidence of that.”

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Related Information

Paul Rouse is represented by The ALvarez Law Firm’s Alex Alvarez.

R.J. Reynolds is represented by King & Spalding’s Cory Hohnbaum.

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Topics: tobacco, Engle Progeny, Florida, Rouse v. R.J. Reynolds