Sides Face Off Over Fault for Smoker's Fatal Lung Disease as Trial Starts Against RJR

Posted by Meghan Gourley on Sep 19, 2016 3:59:52 PM

Jacksonville, FL—Attorneys battled Thursday over responsibility for the respiratory disease that killed a Florida man who allegedly smoked up to three packs of cigarettes a day for more than 30 years, as trial opened Thursday against R.J. Reynolds. Prentice v. R.J. Reynolds, 2008-CA-000386.

John Price, 74, died from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, in 2010 after decades of smoking up to three packs of cigarettes a day, and following a years-long battle with the lung disease.  His family claims R.J. Reynolds caused Price's COPD by pushing a scheme to hide the dangers of smoking throughout much of the 20th century and addicting Price to the nicotine in cigarettes.

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During Thursday's openings, Morgan & Morgan's Keith Mitnik, representing Price's family, told jurors Price smoked throughout "most of his waking hours" for more than 30 years. Mitnik claimed Price's smoking was driven by nicotine addiction that began in his youth. During Thursday's openings, Mitnik said, by the time Price was 16, he would start each day with a cigarette before he began work on a dairy farm. "You're going to hear evidence that that kind of smoking is very powerful evidence of addiction, not pleasure, not recreation," Mitnik said. "You still haven't wiped the sleep out of your eyes [before you begin smoking]." 

“When someone smokes [in that] kind of pattern, that round the clock pattern, it is more likely it is being drug-driven than not," Mitnik said. "That addiction is in the mix. And you're going to hear medically that without that kind of drug-driven, addictive smoking, it is very unlikely someone would get COPD." 

Mitnik told jurors Price failed in multiple attempts to quit smoking over the years, using hypnosis and cessation clinics among other methods, before he finally succeeded with the help of nicotine patches. 

But the defense argues Price knew the dangers of smoking and bore responsibility for his COPD by not making a concerted effort to stop smoking earlier. “If he had done that, he could have eliminated all risk of getting COPD from smoking, completely eliminated that risk,” Walker said. “But the evidence will be that no one could force Mr. Price to take that step of putting down those cigarettes.”

Walker challenged the claim nicotine addiction caused Price's death by telling jurors Price successfully quit smoking in what Walker termed as his first "sustained effort" to stop. Walker said while Price continued smoking through his unsuccessful quit attempts, "the first time he put down those cigarettes as part of a committed attempt to stop, he never picked them up again.  Not even once.”

Price's case stems from Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a 1994 class action by Florida's smokers against the nation's tobacco companies. Jurors in the original class action found companies, including Reynolds, hid smoking's hazards for much of the 20th century. Although the Florida Supreme Court ultimately decertified the class on appeal in 2006, individual, so-called Engle progeny plaintiffs can rely on the jury's findings in the original class action if they prove a link between nicotine addiction and a smoking-related disease.

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Related information

Plaintiffs are represented by Morgan & Morgan’s Keith Mitnik.

RJ Reynolds is represented by Jones Day’s John Walker.

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Topics: Products Liability, tobacco, Engle Progeny, Florida, Prentice v. R.J. Reynolds