Dedham, MA—A Massachusetts state court jury cleared R.J. Reynolds on Wednesday of responsibility for the cancer death of a 54-year-old nurse who smoked for decades. Lagadimas v. R.J. Reynolds, 1582-CV-01474.
Jurors in Norfolk County Superior Court deliberated for more than six hours before finding in favor of Reynolds on claims that defective cigarette design and a conspiracy to undercut evidence of smoking's risks led to Dawn O'Toole's lung cancer death in 2012.
O’Toole, a registered nurse with a background in respiratory therapy, died after more than four decades of smoking. O’Toole favored Newport cigarettes, originally made by Lorillard Tobacco Co., throughout much of her life. Reynolds bought the company in 2015.
During Wednesday’s closing arguments, the O’Toole family’s attorney, Gordon Rhea, sought more than $1 million in economic damages as part of an unspecified total amount of compensatory damages and punitives.
The 12-day trial turned on whether Lorillard could have made and sold a safer cigarette, and what responsibility, if any, O'Toole bore for her smoking decisions.
During Wednesday’s closing arguments, Rhea argued Lorillard manipulated nicotine levels in Newport cigarettes to hook smokers. He added documents showed the company could have instead made a cigarette with ultra-low nicotine and lower carcinogens, but chose to scrap the project. “This was a business decision by Lorillard,” Rhea said. “And rather than taking the step to make a safer design, [the company] decided to stick with what it had.”
Rhea walked jurors through documents he said Lorillard participated in an industry-wide conspiracy designed to cast doubt on smoking’s health hazards. He argued that, by the time O’Toole truly understood smoking was dangerous, she was so addicted to nicotine she could not stop. “What Lorillard had wanted to happen to its smokers, happened to her,” Rhea said. “She was addicted. She couldn’t stop. Their plan worked.”
But the defense contended O’Toole chose to continue smoking despite knowing the risks of cigarettes. During Wednesday’s closings, Jones Day’s Kevin Boyce told jurors there was no evidence O’Toole was swayed by Lorillard messaging. And he added that she was not truly motivated to quit smoking in time to avoid her cancer. “Mrs. O’Toole chose to smoke cigarettes, not because she couldn’t stop, but because she wanted to [smoke],” Boyce said. “There wasn’t any credible evidence that Mrs. O’Toole could not stop smoking if she wanted to.”
Boyce also argued the alternative cigarette designs cited by plaintiff were not actually safer than the cigarettes O'Toole bought. And he noted that health warnings appeared on every pack of Newports O’Toole smoked. “Even a product as dangerous as cigarettes—that cause cancer and addiction—can be rendered reasonably safe for use by a warning label,” Boyce said.
Editor's note: This is a developing story and updates will be added as they become available.
Email Arlin Crisco at email@example.com.
Julie Lagadimas is represented by Northeastern University School of Law's Public Health Advocacy Institute's Andrew Rainer and Meredith Lever, and by Gordon Rhea.
R.J. Reynolds is represented by Jones Day’s Kevin Boyce and Emily Baker.
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