Viera, FL—Attorneys battled Friday over whether nicotine addiction and a conspiracy to hide smoking’s dangers caused a Florida man’s lung cancer death as trial opened against R.J. Reynolds. Morse v. R.J. Reynolds, 2008-CA-006848.
“It’s almost a 50-year conspiracy in the history of an industry that started 100 years ago,” Richard Diaz, of the Law Offices of Richard J. Diaz, said in describing an alleged tobacco industry scheme to hide the dangers of cigarettes from 1953 to the 1990s. “And the result of that is 600,000 people... dying every year in this country. Mr. Morse is one of those people.”
Jay Morse, 69, died from lung cancer in 1995 after more than 40 years of smoking up to three packs of cigarettes a day. Pearl Morse, his widow, claims R.J. Reynolds, makers of the Camel cigarettes her husband smoked for most of his life, hooked him on cigarettes and hid the dangers of smoking from him for years.
During his opening statement Friday, Diaz, representing Pearl Morse, previewed decades of industry documents he said showed a sweeping campaign to undermine the ever-growing weight of scientific evidence about smoking’s health risks. Diaz said that campaign included marketing initiatives that overshadowed warnings about cigarettes. “[Information on smoking’s dangers] was like a snowflake in a snowstorm,” Diaz said.
Diaz said the tobacco industry campaign helped dupe Jay Morse, whom Reynolds had successfully hooked on a product it had engineered to be as addictive as possible. Diaz told jurors Dr. Joseph DiFranza, a psychiatrist and addiction expert, would testify Morse met the definition of a nicotine addict under at least three tests. “No matter how you look at it, no matter how you slice it, no matter how you dice it, all of those three tools… Mr. Morse was addicted to nicotine in cigarettes.”
The case is among thousands of Florida’s so-called Engle progeny lawsuits against the nation’s tobacco companies. They stem from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision decertifying Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a class action tobacco suit originally filed in 1994. Although the state’s supreme court ruled that Engle-progeny cases must be tried individually, it found plaintiffs could rely on certain jury findings in the original case, including the determination that tobacco companies had placed a dangerous, addictive product on the market and had conspired to hide the dangers of smoking through much of the 20th century.
In order to be entitled to those findings, however, each plaintiff must prove class membership by showing nicotine addiction legally caused a smoking-related disease such as lung cancer.
But the defense contends Morse smoked by choice and was not interested in quitting for much of his life. During his opening statement Friday, King & Spalding’s Jason Keehfus said Morse never made a serious quit attempt. “Even when Mr. Morse said he was making an attempt to quit smoking, he never reduced the amount, the normal amount he smoked every day, by even a cigarette,” Keehfus said. “Not one.”
Keehfus also argued that Morse’s refusal to undergo lung surgery in 1991 ultimately led to his death four years later. “[I]f Mr. Morris had followed his doctor's recommendations to have surgery in 1991, his lung cancer most likely would have been cured, and he would have survived.” Keehfus said. “Mr. Morse did what he wanted to do. He decided to wait, and make his own decision.”
This is the third time the Morse case has been in front of CVN cameras, with two previous mistrials cutting the case short of a verdict. In 2014, the case’s last appearance before a jury, Circuit Judge George Turner declared a mistrial after Dr. Shannon Miller, the plaintiff’s addiction expert in that trial, compared the annual number of smoking-related deaths to the deaths in the September 11 attack on New York City’s World Trade Center.
Trial, before Judge Stephen Koons, is expected to last into next week.
Email Arlin Crisco at email@example.com.
Pearl Morse is represented by Richard Diaz, of The Law Offices of Richard J. Diaz.
R.J. Reynolds is represented by King & Spalding’s Jason Keehfus.
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