Quincy, FL— A Florida jury Thursday handed down a $400,000 verdict against R.J. Reynolds for its role in a smoker’s lung cancer death, but apportioned the lion’s share of responsibility to the smoker himself, which will likely slash the award. Russ v. R.J. Reynolds, 2008-CA-000931.
Jurors in Florida’s 2nd Judicial Circuit, in Gadsden County, needed less than three hours to conclude that a decades-long addiction to Reynolds cigarettes caused Roosevelt Sutton’s 1996 lung cancer death, at 60.
However, the jury found Sutton was 75% responsible for his fatal cancer and apportioned 25% of fault to Reynolds. That, combined with the jury’s rejection of fraud and conspiracy claims against the company, and its refusal to award punitive damages, means the $400,000 award will likely be reduced to $100,000.
Sutton’s widow, Lue-Ethel Russ, claims Reynolds’s role in a tobacco industry scheme to hide the dangers of cigarettes through much of the 20th century hooked her husband to nicotine and ultimately killed him.
The case is one of thousands that stem from Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a 1994 Florida state court class-action lawsuit against the nation’s tobacco companies. 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.
The five-day trial over Sutton’s death turned in large part on what responsibility, if any, Sutton bore for his smoking decisions and ultimate lung cancer.
During Thursday’s closings, Russ’s attorney, Terrell Hogan’s Wayne Hogan, reminded jurors of decades of internal documents showing Reynolds helped drive a widespread scheme to undercut scientific evidence on smoking’s risks. “[It was] RJR’s choice not to cooperate with public health, RJR’s choice to interfere and discourage smoking cessation,” Hogan said. “Its choice to misinform their customers, and a choice to put profits over the health of people.”
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But Reynolds contended Sutton’s own choice to smoke ultimately rendered him responsible for any impact it had. During Thursday’s closings, Jones Day’s Jack Williams told jurors Sutton smoked despite being warned by family and others, and he demonstrated no interest in quitting for much of his life. “He was a willing and voluntary smoker who knew the risks during his entire life,” Williams said. “But he continued to smoke because it was something that he enjoyed to do.”
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lue-Ethel Russ is represented by Parks and Crump’s Daryl Parks and Terrell Hogan’s Wayne Hogan and Angelo Patacca.
R.J. Reynolds is represented by Jones Day’s Jack Williams and Bradley Harrison.
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