Miami, FL— A Florida jury levied a $1 million total verdict last week against Philip Morris for the role it found the cigarette maker played in the lung cancer death of a longtime Marlboro smoker. Chacon v. Philip Morris, 2008-CA-000102.
The award includes $800,000 in compensatory damages and $200,000 in punitives for the 1996 death of 56-year-old Robiel Chacon, who smoked Philip Morris’ Marlboro cigarettes for decades after he immigrated to the US from Cuba in the 1950s.
Chacon’s family contends Philip Morris conspired to hide the dangers of smoking throughout much of the latter half of the 20th century, addicting Chacon to cigarettes and ultimately causing his cancer.
The case is one of thousands of so-called “Engle progeny” lawsuits, claims spun from a decertified 1990s class action by Florida smokers against the nation’s tobacco companies. In decertifying the class following a trial court verdict against the companies, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that individual Engle progeny plaintiffs can recover damages only if they prove the smoker at the heart of each case was addicted to cigarettes that legally caused a smoking-related illness.
Last week’s decision comes seven years after an earlier defense verdict in the case. Jurors in that 2016 trial found Chacon did not have sufficient ties to Florida to render him an Engle progeny class member. However, that earlier verdict was subsequently reversed by Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal, which remanded the case after concluding the trial court erred when instructing the jury that plaintiffs must prove Chacon was both a citizen and a resident of Florida for Engle class membership. Either element, the appellate court held, would be sufficient.
As part of its verdict, jurors last week concluded Chacon — who owned a house in Florida where he lived with his family, but held a New York driver’s license and was registered to vote in New York at the time of his cancer diagnosis — had sufficient ties to Florida for Engle class membership.
Beyond the issue of state ties, the question of Philip Morris’ role in Chacon’s smoking served as a central question at trial. Philip Morris maintains Chacon knew the dangers of cigarettes for years but did not make a serious effort to quit smoking in time to avoid his cancer. And they contend US tobacco industry marketing did not sway Chacon’s smoking decisions.
During closings of the trial’s first phase, over class membership, Kim Vaughan Lerner’s Robert Vaughan, representing Philip Morris, reminded jurors that Chacon had begun smoking while still living in Cuba and that none of the cigarettes he smoked in that country were made by Philip Morris. And Vaughan added that, even if jurors believed Chacon was addicted to cigarettes, the plaintiff’s expert on addiction had testified he believed Chacon became hooked while still in Cuba.
“So based upon plaintiff’s own expert, Mr. Chacon was addicted before he ever set foot on U.S. soil, before he ever smoked a single cigarette manufactured by Philip Morris, before he ever heard a single statement that could have been from Philip Morris, or affiliated with Philip Morris or another US tobacco company,” Vaughan said.
But the Chacon family’s attorneys contend Philip Morris’ participation in a long-running conspiracy to hide the dangers of cigarettes and undermine medical evidence of their risks fueled Chacon’s smoking.
During closings of the trial’s first phase last week, The Alvarez Law Firm’s Nick Reyes highlighted evidence he said showed Philip Morris participated in wide-ranging initiatives to hide smoking’s dangers, including falsely marketing filtered cigarettes such as the Marlboros Chacon smoked, as safer than unfiltered brands.
“They knew it was a gimmick. They knew it didn’t work, internally, but they never shared that publicly,” Reyes said. “But Mr. Chacon believed that it worked.”
Email Arlin Crisco at email@example.com.
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