Alex Alvarez delivers his opening statement at trial against R.J. Reynolds over an Oregon woman's lung cancer.
Portland, OR— Attorneys Tuesday sparred over whether R.J. Reynolds bears responsibility for a 46-year-old Oregon woman’s terminal lung cancer, during openings of what is likely the first in-person, state court tobacco jury trial since COVID-19 shuttered courtrooms across the country. Rickman v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 19CV28636.
Patricia Rickman tried her first cigarette at 12, was a regular smoker by 13, and continued smoking a variety of Reynolds’s Camel-brand cigarettes for more than 30 years. In 2018, doctors diagnosed her with lung cancer, which her attorney, The Alvarez Law Firm’s Alex Alvarez said was now considered terminal. Rickman claims that Reynolds’s participation in a decades-long scheme to conceal the dangers of smoking hooked her to cigarettes and ultimately caused her cancer.
During Tuesday’s openings, Alvarez walked jurors through corporate documents that he said showed Reynolds participated in a multi-pronged marketing and public relations initiative that was designed to cast doubt on the growing evidence of smoking’s dangers throughout much of the 20th century.
Alvarez said the initiative included paying scientists to make false claims, planting false stories in newspapers and magazines, and creating an agency, the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, as a propaganda arm to mislead the public. “It was really a shield against getting the information out, and it was a front,” Alvarez said the industry’s own documents would show. “Those aren’t my words. Those are their words.”
Alvarez told jurors that, shortly after she began smoking, Rickman was influenced by Reynolds’s “Joe Camel” ads, which he said were designed to appeal to teens. And he added that Rickman smoked filtered cigarettes and, later, so-called “light” cigarettes, believing false messaging that they were safer.
“When somebody says ‘What was the fraud?’ That was the fraud,” Alvarez said.
The trial is among the first — and possibly the first — large-scale, state court products liability jury trials to be held in almost a year, when the coronavirus pandemic forced courts to drastically limit in-person proceedings.
Trial commenced with social distancing and safety guidelines that have become the new standard as courts slowly return to in-person proceedings. Jurors were seated to allow greater space between them. Facial coverings are required throughout the courtroom, leading attorneys to deliver their opening statements through masks.
And during those openings, Jones Day’s Steven Geise, representing Reynolds, told jurors Rickman chose to smoke for decades, despite knowing the dangers of cigarettes.
Geise said that information on smoking’s risks was commonplace years before Rickman tried her first cigarette, and he noted that every pack of cigarettes Rickman bought bore a warning of the product’s dangers.
“Thirty-two years before she was diagnosed with lung cancer, she had a warning in her hand about that disease,” Geise said. “Whether she chose to read that warning and heed that advice, or not, was her decision. It was literally in her hands.”
Geise took issue with the plaintiff’s claim that Rickman had tried to stop smoking long before her cancer diagnosis. Instead, he contended that evidence would show Rickman smoked for roughly 30 years before ever trying to quit cigarettes completely. And he added that, although Rickman used nicotine patches as a smoking cessation aid, she ignored instructions against smoking while wearing the product.
“You’ll have to assess whether she was really making motivated attempts to quit in advance of her diagnosis or not,” Geise said.
Trial is expected to last between 2 and 3 weeks. CVN is streaming the trial live and on demand, and will provide updates via its news page.
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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