Fort Lauderdale, FL— Attorneys last week squared off over what role, if any, R.J. Reynolds and tobacco industry messaging played in the lung cancer death of a Florida woman, as trial opened against the tobacco giant. Hamilton v. R.J. Reynolds, 2008-CV-019632.
Janice Hamilton, who began smoking when she was about 31, died from cancer in 1992, after smoking up to two packs of cigarettes a day for more than three decades. Her son, Robert, contends that Reynolds’ involvement in a scheme to hide the dangers of smoking addicted their mother to nicotine and caused her death.
During openings last Thursday, Robert Hamilton’s attorney, Kelley | Uustal’s Eric Rosen, told jurors Hamilton began smoking as a way to stay awake with her newborn late at night. Rosen said Hamilton quickly became hooked on cigarettes. And he contended her efforts to quit were undercut both by the strength of her addiction and a tobacco industry-wide conspiracy to cast doubt on the dangers of smoking.
Rosen walked jurors through documents showing Reynolds and other tobacco companies funded institutions meant to counter evidence of smoking’s risks, while crafting sophiscated campaigns to market cigarettes they knew were addictive. “They knew that… if there’s doubt, then the risk is limited in [the smoker’s] mind,” Rosen said. “You’re going to see how powerful this machine was.”
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, such as lung cancer.
The defense contends Hamilton knew the dangers of smoking and was not interested in stopping in time to avoid her cancer. During last Thursday’s openings, King & Spalding’s Cory Hohnbaum told jurors Hamilton began smoking as an adult in 1955 when stories about the dangers of cigarettes were widespread.
Hohnbaum said Hamilton never took committed steps to quit cigarettes, and ignored pleas from her family to do more in trying to quit. “Nothing could have been provided to her that would have sufficiently motivated her to quit smoking.” Hohnbaum said. “She didn’t want to quit.”
Closings are Friday
Email Arlin Crisco at email@example.com.
Robert Hamilton is represented by Kelley | Uustal’s Eric Rosen and Kimberly Wald.
R.J. Reynolds is represented by King & Spalding’s Cory Hohnbaum and Spencer Diamond.
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