Tampa, FL— A Florida jury handed down a $1 million verdict last week against R.J. Reynolds for the 1997 death of a Florida smoker, but concluded the smoker himself bore the majority of responsibility for his fatal cancer, likely reducing the ultimate damage award. Wyerick v. R.J. Reynolds, 2008-CA-006850.
The 13th Circuit State Court jury, in Hillsborough County, deliberated less than four hours before finding Reynolds liable for Raymond Wyerick’s lung cancer death. However, jurors apportioned 35% of responsibility to Reynolds, with the remainder apportioned to Wyerick himself. That, coupled with the jury’s rejection of the Wyerick family’s punitive damage claim, means the ultimate award will likely be reduced to $350,000.
Wyerick began smoking at 14 and continued for more than 40 years, favoring the Pall Malls cigarettes for which Reynolds is now responsible as a corporate successor of the brand’s earlier manufacturer. He died at age 57 from lung cancer, nine months after he was diagnosed with the disease. His wife, Mary Lou Wyerick, contends that cigarettes addicted her husband to nicotine, which ultimately caused his fatal cancer.
During closing arguments last Friday, Mary Lou Wyerick’s attorney, Dolan | Dobrinsky | Rosenblum | Bluestein’s Randy Rosenblum, requested $10 million in compensatory damages in the case, plus a finding that punitives were warranted.
The case is among thousands of so-called Engle-progeny tobacco claims, lawsuits spun from a 1990s Florida class action against the nation’s tobacco companies. After a trial verdict in favor of the plaintiffs, the Florida Supreme Court decertified the class, but found individual plaintiffs could recover by proving class membership and establishing that the smokers at the heart of their cases suffered a smoking-related illness caused by nicotine addiction.
The 7-day trial turned on what drove Wyerick to smoke throughout the majority of his life and what responsibility he bore for his smoking-related decisions. During last Friday’s closings, Rosenblum reminded jurors of evidence he said showed Reynolds was responsible for driving Wyerick’s decades-long addiction to cigarettes, including knowingly marketing a product it knew was dangerous and undercutting smokers’ attempts to quit cigarettes. And he argued Wyerick was so addicted to cigarettes that he could not quit them, even after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.
“The man has been diagnosed with lung cancer, you heard it was a terminal diagnosis…. He was told all this information and he’s still smoking cigarettes. Why? Because he doesn’t care?” Rosenblum asked. “No, it’s because he’s addicted.”
But Reynolds countered that Wyerick smoked for enjoyment, not because of addiction, and was not interested in quitting cigarettes in time to avoid his cancer. During Friday’s closings, King & Spalding’s Jason Keehfus highlighted evidence he said showed Wyerick knew the dangers of smoking for years but enjoyed cigarettes and ignored repeated pleas to quit.
“Mr. Wyerick enjoyed the use of a completely legal product his entire life,” Keehfus said, “and could have quit whenever he wanted, despite knowing it was dangerous.”
Email Arlin Crisco at email@example.com.
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