Miami, FL—Lawyers began battle this week in the case of a Cuban immigrant who died of laryngeal cancer 20 years ago, as they debated whether a smoker could truly be addicted to nicotine if he could stop and start a casual casual cocaine habit. Ledo v. R.J. Reynolds, 08-113-CA-31.
Jose Ledo was already a smoker at 23 when he came to the United States from Cuba in 1961. Attorney Austin Carr, who represents Ledo's wife and son, Mirtha and Carlos in a $6 million claim against R.J. Reynolds, said in opening statements that Ledo was addicted to the Reynolds-brand cigarettes he smoked until he developed laryngeal cancer in 1993. They also claim the cigarette maker engaged in a decades-long conspiracy to market the addictive cigarettes to unsuspecting consumers and hide the dangers of smoking. Ledo died in November 1996 from his cancer.
"It’s not a complicated mathematical formula," Carr said after highlighting a variety of 20th century tobacco industry tactics, including the funding of scientific arms, to cast doubt on the mounting evidence of smoking's dangers. "You’re people, you’re judging a corporation made of people. You’re judging Jose Ledo, a human being with flaws. And so as you hear the evidence in this case all we ask is for you to apply your common sense."
Carr told jurors Reynolds' concealment of smoking's hazards led Ledo to become addicted to Reynolds' Winston cigarettes. "Winston was his brand," Carr said.
Carr told jurors he would request $6 million in compensatory damages alone, including $4 million to Carlos and $2 million to Mirtha, as well as a finding punitive damages are warranted.
But not only did Ledo smoke cigarettes, he also used cocaine with his wife when they socialized, said King & Spalding's Jason Keehfus, representing Reynolds. However, Ledo did not consistently use the highly addictive substance over a 14-year period. Instead, he quit for months at a time without a problem and then resumed again when he chose to, Keehfus said.
“No one will say Mr Ledo was addicted [to cocaine]. He managed and controlled his use of cocaine because he wanted to," Keehfus, said. "He enjoyed using cocaine and he was able to stay abstinent for prolonged periods of time—at least 15 or 18 months he went without using cocaine and then resumed using it."
Keehfus also said that there is no evidence Ledo began smoking Winston cigarettes until 1968, two years after all cigarette packs began carrying labels. He told jurors that by the time he arrived in the U.S., Ledo would have been surrounded by warnings about smoking that were already causing millions of Americans to quit.
"This is not a case about whether cigarettes should be sold. Cigarettes are a legal product," Keehfus said. "Congress took that issue off the table 50 years ago when they said cigarettes are legal to be sold and consumed as long as they carry a warning label. It’s not about a class action. It’s not about other smokers. It’s about Mr. Ledo, and the choices he made during his lifetime, and who is responsible for those choices."
Ledo's case is a so-called Engle progeny case, stemming from Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a Florida state court class-action lawsuit originally filed in 1994, in which jurors found for the plaintiffs. The high court later decertified the class, but ruled that 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, if they prove the smoker at the heart of a case suffered from nicotine addiction that was the legal cause of a smoking-related disease.
Austin Carr represents Mirtha and Carlos Ledo.
King & Spalding's Jason Keehfus represents R.J. Reynolds.
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