Pensacola, FL—A state court jury awarded more than $806,000 this week, including more than a half-million in punitives, at trial against Philip Morris over respiratory disease a North Florida man developed following nearly a half-century of smoking. Bryant v. Philip Morris, 2015-CA-001691.
Jurors in Florida’s First Judicial Circuit, in Pensacola, issued their awards after linking Johnny Lee Bryant’s years of smoking, and tobacco industry statements intended to conceal the dangers of cigarettes, to respiratory disease Bryant was first diagnosed with in the 1990s.
Bryant, 70, ultimately died of complications from coronary artery disease in 1999.
However, the jury’s verdict apportioned only a quarter of responsibility to Philip Morris, likely reducing the $225,000 compensatory portion of damages accordingly. Jurors found Bryant himself 50% responsible, and apportioned the remaining liability to non-party R.J. Reynolds, whose cigarettes Bryant smoked for decades before switching to Philip Morris’ Marlboros.
The Bryant case stems from Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a Florida state court class action suit originally filed in 1994. After a trial victory for the class members, the state’s supreme court ultimately decertified the class, but ruled that so-called Engle progeny cases may be tried individually. Engle progeny plaintiffs are entitled to the benefit of the jury's findings in the original verdict, including the determination that tobacco companies had placed a dangerous, addictive product on the market and hid the dangers of smoking, if they prove the smoker at the heart of the case suffered from nicotine addiction that was the legal cause of a smoking-related disease such as COPD.
Bryant’s widow contends her husband, who began smoking as a child, became addicted to cigarettes through an industry-wide scheme to hide the dangers of smoking throughout much of the 20th century.
During closing arguments in the trial’s first phase on liability, Veda Bryant’s attorney, Richard Diaz, of The Law Offices of Richard J. Diaz, described Johnny Lee Bryant as a “tortured” smoker who turned to “light” and filtered cigarettes out of a tobacco industry-fueled belief that they were safer.
“For those people who now think that cigarette smoking can kill you, it may be addictive, we’re going to give them the double down. We’ve got the filter and 'light' cigarettes,” Diaz said, when discussing Philip Morris' development of filtered and light cigarettes. “And [Bryant] went to lights.”
However, the defense argues Bryant knew the dangers of cigarettes and was not influenced by tobacco messaging. During closing arguments, Shook Hardy’s William Geraghty reminded jurors of warnings Bryant received from his family about smoking’s risks, and he highlighted inconsistencies in testimony about when and why Bryant began smoking Marlboro Lights.
Claims by Bryant’s family that he switched to “light” cigarettes because of TV commercials touting them as safer could not be true, Geraghty noted, because Marlboro Lights did not come on the market until after a nationwide ban on cigarette TV ads went into effect. “There has never been a Marlboro Lights television commercial, ever,” Geraghty said. “The story that the Bryant family tried to tell you just could not have happened.”
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Veda Bryant is represented by Richard Diaz, of The Law Offices of Richard J. Diaz.
Philip Morris is represented by Boies, Schiller & Flexner’s Andrew Brenner and Shook, Hardy & Bacon’s William Geraghty.
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