Tampa, FL— Attorneys Thursday debated whether R.J. Reynolds was responsible for the death of a Florida mother of 9, as trial opened against the tobacco giant. Ellis v. R.J. Reynolds, 10-A-016308.
Loretta Ellis smoked a pack or more of cigarettes for more than 50 years, favoring R.J. Reynolds’ Winston brand, before her death in 2010. Ellis’ son, George, claims his mother died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, brought about by her decades of smoking and a tobacco industry-wide campaign to addict smokers like his mother.
During Thursday’s opening statements, the Ellis family’s attorney, The Ferraro Firm’s Allan Kaiser, walked jurors through documents he said showed a vast conspiracy to undercut scientific evidence of smoking’s risks throughout much of the 20th century. Kaiser told jurors Ellis fell prey to the scheme, switching to filtered cigarettes and ultimately to “light” filtered cigarettes, that were marketed as safer alternatives to their unfiltered predecessors. “What the cigarette companies knew that they didn’t disclose was that filters were no… safer than unfiltered cigarettes,” Kaiser said. “Filters were basically a public relations gimmick, and they knew that.”
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 the defense argues Ellis chose to smoke and was not swayed by tobacco marketing. During Thursday’s openings, Jones Day’s Steven Geise told jurors Ellis was warned by family members to stop smoking but never tried to quit until about 2002 when she successfully stopped.
“Mrs. Ellis made the decision to start smoking as an adult at the suggestion of her husband. And she made the decision to continue smoking throughout her adult life, contrary to the suggestions of those around her,” Geise said. “And once smoking was something she no longer wanted to do and no longer enjoyable, she stopped doing it.”
Geise also added that medical evidence would not support the claim that Ellis had COPD within the Engle class membership period. Geise noted COPD is incurable and highlighted pulmonary function results in the late 2000’s that showed Ellis did not have COPD. “If you don’t have it in 2007 and 2009, the evidence will be it wasn’t there before that,” Geise said, arguing Ellis actually suffered from asthma and restrictive lung disease unrelated to smoking.
But Kaiser countered medical records between 1992 and 1996 showed Ellis was being treated for COPD, and Ellis’s treating physician concluded she ultimately died of the disease. “You’ll hear that Mrs. Ellis had numerous exacerbations of her COPD that necessitated hospital visits, emergency room visits. Many, many,” Kaiser said, as he walking jurors through Ellis’ medical records. “And as she was getting close to death, many more.”
Trial is expected to last through next week.
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Ellis family is represented by The Ferraro Law Firm’s Allan Kaiser.
R.J. Reynolds is represented by Jones Day’s Steven Geise.
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