Fort Lauderdale, FL— The nation’s two largest tobacco companies were hit with a $148 million punitive verdict Friday, capping a $157 million total award for the death of a Florida smoker. The award is the largest in years in Florida's Engle progeny class of tobacco cases. Caprio v. Philip Morris, 2007-CV-036719.
Friday’s decision, which imposes $74.1 million each against R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris, is added to a $9.2 million compensatory award handed down last week for the respiratory disease-related death of Edward Caprio. The case is the first wrongful death tobacco case brought by a same-sex surviving spouse in Florida.
Caprio died from respiratory disease in 2018, following decades of smoking. His husband, Bryan Rintoul, contends a conspiracy by the tobacco companies to hide the dangers of smoking caused Caprio’s nicotine addiction, and ultimately his fatal respiratory disease.
Friday’s verdict dwarfs the $48 million punitive award Rintoul’s attorney, The Schlesinger Law Offices P.A.’s Steven Hammer, requested in Thursday’s closings.
The lawsuit is among thousands of claims that stem from Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a 1994 Florida state court class-action case against the nation’s tobacco companies. The state's supreme court ultimately decertified the class, but ruled that so-called 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 conspired to hide the dangers of smoking. However, in order to be entitled to those findings, plaintiffs must prove the smokers at the heart of their cases suffered from nicotine addiction that caused a smoking-related disease.
Following last week’s conclusion of trial on class membership, this week’s four-day trial on punitives focused largely on whether changes to the tobacco industry as a whole over the last two decades mitigated against financial punishment for the acts jurors found led to Caprio’s death.
During Thursday’s closings, Jones Day’s Stephanie Parker, representing Reynolds, argued the company, and the industry at-large had made sweeping changes from the days when it was part of the tobacco conspiracy. Parker walked jurors through tight FDA regulation of cigarette products and marketing, and she told jurors the company has developed safer cigarette alternatives, while warning consumers about the dangers of tobacco and researching positive aspects of nicotine. “When you have a company that’s made these changes, do you want to send them a message that those changes don’t matter?” Parker asked. “What kind of message is that for other companies?”
Shook Hardy’s Walter Cofer, representing Philip Morris, added the tobacco company had advocated FDA regulation, and complied with mandatory marketing restrictions while going father in voluntarily removing their ads from magazines. And he outlined the billions of dollars the company had paid under a settlement agreement with the states’ attorney general. “There’s no question today Philip Morris operates in a much more transparent and controlled environment than at any time in the past,” Cofer said.
But Rintoul’s legal team argued those steps were too little and did not absolve the tobacco companies for their role in Caprio’s death. During Thursday’s closings, The Schlesinger Law Offices P.A.’s Jonathan Gdanski argued the companies had not truly accepted fault for their conduct, and continued to try to hook consumers to nicotine, through both traditional cigarettes and vaping devices such as Juul, which he noted Philip Morris purchased an interest in, last year. “Horrors leave shadows, especially carcinogenic ones. It’s not something you can just pretend didn’t happen,” Gdanski said. “And so what do they do, when confronted with it? Deny, delay distract.”
Caprio had originally filed suit against the companies while suffering from respiratory disease, but died three years after a partial verdict in a 2015 trial against the tobacco companies left his claims unresolved. Rintoul, whose relationship with Caprio spanned roughly 30 years and who married Caprio three days after Florida made same-sex marriage legal in 2015, moved to amend the suit as a surviving spouse. Judge David Haimes, of Florida’s 17th Circuit, granted the motion, allowing Rintoul to seek damages for loss of consortium.
This verdict is the largest Engle progeny award since July 2014, when jurors in Pensacola handed down a $23.6 billion verdict against R.J. Reynolds for Michael Johnson's 1996 cancer death. That award was ultimately thrown out on appeal. Jurors cleared RJR in a retrial over Johnson's death earlier this year.
Email Arlin Crisco at email@example.com.
Bryan Rintoul is represented by Schlesinger Law Offices P.A.’s Scott Schlesinger and Steven Hammer, and Jonathan Gdanski.
Philip Morris is represented by Shook Hardy’s Walter Cofer.
R.J. Reynolds is represented by Jones Day’s Kevin Boyce and Stephanie Parker.
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