Fort Lauderdale, FL— A Florida state court jury smacked R.J. Reynolds this week with a $10.6 million total verdict for the role it found the company played in the lung cancer death of a Florida woman. Hamilton v. R.J. Reynolds, 2008-CV-019632.
The decision in Florida’s 17th Circuit, in Broward County, includes $6 million in compensatories handed down Monday and $4.6 million in punitives on Tuesday for the 1992 lung cancer death of Janice Hamilton.
Hamilton began smoking at 31 and smoked up to two packs a day for the next 35 years. Jurors found Reynolds’ involvement in a scheme to hide smoking’s risks helped hook Hamilton to the nicotine in cigarettes and caused her fatal cancer.
Kelley | Uustal’s Eric Rosen, representing Hamilton’s family, had requested $7.5 million in compensatories — or $2.5 million to each of Hamilton’s three children— and up to $18 million in punitives during closings this week.
The case is one of thousands that stem from Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a 1994 Florida state court class-action lawsuit against Reynolds and the nation's other tobacco companies, in which jurors found for the plaintiffs. The state's supreme court later decertified the class, but ruled 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.
To be entitled to those findings, however, each plaintiff must prove the smoker at the heart of their case suffered from nicotine addiction that was the legal cause of a smoking-related disease, such as lung cancer.
Much of the nine-day trial focused on why Hamilton began smoking, and what caused her to continue for more than three decades. .
Reynolds argued that Hamilton was not swayed by tobacco messaging regarding smoking, or any industry-wide conspiracy to hide its dangers. During closings of the trial’s first phase Friday, King & Spalding’s Cory Hohnbaum told jurors Hamilton began smoking as an adult, as a way to stay awake with her newborn. “She didn’t do it in reliance on anything R.J. Reynolds said or did, or anything any other tobacco company said or did,” Hohnbaum said. “She started smoking because she had a collicky baby.”
Hohnbaum added Hamilton was never interested in quitting in time to avoid her cancer. He reminded jurors of evidence that Hamilton disregarded pleas from her family to quit and refused suggestions to try nicotine gum. “She didn’t want to go to enough effort to just chew gum to try to quit smoking,” Hohnbaum said. “That’s somebody, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, who does not want to quit.”
But Rosen argued Hamilton was so powerfully hooked on cigarettes that even her lung cancer diagnosis was insufficient to break the addiction. Rosen added that defense claims Hamilton smoked for enjoyment merely highlighted nicotine’s effect on her body. “That’s what a drug does.... People don’t use drugs because it makes them feel bad,” Rosen said. “And they knew that, and they designed [cigarettes] like that.”
Rosen also highlighted documents he said showed R.J. Reynolds’ participation in a decades-long tobacco industry conspiracy to hide the dangers of smoking while falsely marketing filtered cigarettes as less dangerous than their traditional counterparts. Rosen noted Hamilton smoked filtered cigarettes and urged her son to smoke filters if he smoked at all. “Where did she get that belief from?” Rosen said. “From advertising.”
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robert Hamilton is represented by Kelley | Uustal’s Eric Rosen and Kimberly Wald.
R.J. Reynolds is represented by King & Spalding’s Cory Hohnbaum and Spencer Diamond.
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