Jacksonville, FL—Jurors Thursday linked R.J. Reynolds cigarettes to a Florida smoker’s lung disease, but they placed the majority of blame on the smoker, and their $375,000 verdict was a fraction of what she sought against the tobacco giant. Rozar v. R.J. Reynolds, 2014CA000586.
The jury, in the state’s Fourth Circuit, sitting in Duval County, deliberated for about an hour before concluding Myra Rozar’s decades of smoking R.J. Reynolds cigarettes led to her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.
However, the jury apportioned only 10 percent of responsibility to Reynolds, dealing the remaining 90% to Rozar herself. That determination, along with a rejection of Rozar’s fraud and conspiracy claims against the company and a refusal to award punitive damages, will likely reduce the jury’s verdict to $37,500 post-trial.
Rozar’s attorney, Doffermyre, Shields, Canfield & Knowles’ Robert Shields had requested about $10 million in compensatories, plus a finding that punitives were warranted, during Thursday’s closing arguments.
Rozar, 69, began smoking at 11 and continued to smoke for nearly 50 years, much of that time favoring Reynolds’s Winston brand cigarettes. Doctors diagnosed her with COPD in 1994, but she says she was unable to quit until 15 years later and only after doubling up on nicotine patches for eight months.
The case is one of 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 for decades.
In order to be entitled to those findings, however, each plaintiff must prove class membership by showing nicotine addiction caused a smoking-related disease such as COPD.
The seven-day Rozar trial turned on what part Reynolds played in Rozar’s smoking decisions, and what blame, if any, she bore for not quitting sooner. During Thursday’s closings, Shields reiterated evidence of Rozar’s addiction to cigarettes, an addiction he said began when she was a child and her brain was more vulnerable to nicotine dependency, and which he said ultimately became so strong that even progressively worsening COPD could not break it for more than a decade.
Shields contended Rozar may never have started smoking, or would have quit much sooner, but for tobacco industry initiatives that made their cigarettes as addictive as possible while marketing to youth and casting doubt on smoking’s dangers.
“Myra started smoking as a kid, at a time when it was acceptable to smoke. Her adolescent brain quickly became addicted and she remained addicted to cigarettes for decades," Shields told the jury. By contrast, “[R.J. Reynolds] focused their marketing on kids like Myra and they tried to keep them smoking. So when you’re comparing fault, you have to compare all of the fault in reaching your determination.”
But Jones Day’s Steven Geise, representing Reynolds, said Rozar made her own smoking decisions, and simply was not motivated to quit until her COPD had become severe. Geise noted Rozar had not tried to quit smoking when her mother had developed COPD, and that her best friend testified Rozar told her 2009 was the first quit attempt backed by a concerted plan to stop smoking for good.
“Mrs. Rozar was not motivated to stop smoking: not by the warning labels [on cigarettes], not by her mother’s own COPD and death. If she wasn’t motivated to quit, she wasn’t going to make a serious attempt to quit,” Geise said. “That was always the direct and the substantial reason why she smoked. Because that’s what she wanted to do.”
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Myra Rozar is represented by Doffermyre, Shields, Canfield & Knowles’ Robert Shields and John Kalil, of The Law Offices of John Kalil.
R.J. Reynolds is represented by Jones Day’s Steven Geise.
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