Jurors Level $4.5M Verdict Against Tobacco Companies for Ex-Smoker's 20-Year Cancer Battle 

Posted by Arlin Crisco on Sep 9, 2015 12:22:06 AM

Scott Schlesinger argues that a "character flaw" led to a tobacco industry conspiracy to deceive the public on the health effects of cigarettes and ultimately caused the cancer of his client, Mary Cooper. Jurors awarded $4.5 million to Cooper in her suit against R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris. Watch the trial on demand. 

Fort Lauderdale, FL—Jurors Tuesday awarded $4.5 million to an ex-smoker who claims cigarette manufacturers are responsible for the cancer her doctor says likely gives her less than a year to live. Cooper v. R.J. Reynolds, et al., CACE-08026350.

Watch Video from Tobacco TrialsMary Cooper, a smoker for more than 40 years, sued cigarette makers R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris, claiming they conspired to hide the dangers of smoking, leading to Cooper’s nicotine addiction and ultimately causing the lung and laryngeal cancer she has fought for decades. During the trial, Cooper’s physician, Dr. Raja Mudad, testified that he believed Cooper’s cancer was now terminal and estimated she had six months left to live.

While the jury’s verdict found Cooper’s nicotine addiction caused her cancer, it concluded she did not rely on tobacco company deception or an industry-wide conspiracy to mislead the public about the dangers of smoking. The verdict apportioned 40 percent of responsibility to R.J. Reynolds, 10 percent to Philip Morris, and the remaining 50% to Cooper. The jury’s finding as to Cooper's lability, combined with its verdict against Cooper on the conspiracy claim, likely means Judge Jack Tuter will reduce the award to $2.25 million post-verdict.

Cooper had sought up to $20.7 million in compensatory damages, plus unspecified punitives. The jury’s rejection of the fraudulent concealment and conspiracy claims precluded a punitive award.

Cooper’s suit is one of thousands of similar Florida cases against the nation’s tobacco companies. The cases arise from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision decertifying Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a class action tobacco suit originally filed in 1994. The state’s supreme court ruled that each Engle plaintiff must establish class membership individually, by proving nicotine addiction that caused a smoking-related disease. Once plaintiffs prove class membership, they can rely on certain jury findings in the original verdict, including the determination that tobacco companies sold a dangerous, addictive product and conspired to hide the dangers of cigarettes. However, to recover punitive damages, individual plaintiffs must prove reliance on the fraud claims. 

Cooper, who began smoking as a teenager in the 1960s, was diagnosed with neck cancer in 1996 and ultimately quit smoking in 2001, just before cancer surgery to remove her larynx.  

The 14-day trial turned on whether Cooper's nicotine addiction was a legal cause of her cancer and whether she relied on false claims made by tobacco companies when making her smoking decisions.

During closings Friday, Jones Day’s Mark Belasic, representing R.J. Reynolds, claimed Cooper’s refusal to make a concerted effort to quit smoking prior to 2001, and not nicotine addiction, caused her cancer.  Belasic reminded jurors of evidence that Cooper never stopped smoking for more than 1-2 hours at a time prior to her cancer diagnosis. “Think about what stopping smoking for an hour means if you’re smoking a pack a day or a pack and a half. That’s skipping a couple cigarettes,” said Belasic. “That’s like going outside for a walk, and you didn’t smoke, and you come back and say, ‘I really tried to quit.’”

Cooper’s attorney, Sheldon J. Schlesinger P.A.’s Scott Schlesinger, representing Cooper, countered by reminding jurors of evidence that nicotine addiction changed the brain and was so powerful in Cooper that she was unable to successfully stop smoking until after her cancer diagnosis.  “Change that brain (with nicotine) and it’s permanent,” Schlesinger said, highlighting testimony of nicotine addiction expert Dr. Kenneth Cummings. “If you’ve never been a nicotine addict, as (Cummings) said, it’s almost impossible to believe what a drive and what a pull and how easy it is to (relapse).”

Schlesinger also contended Cooper’s nicotine addiction was fueled by a decades-long tobacco industry conspiracy to hide the health effects of smoking. During Friday’s closings, Schlesinger reminded jurors of documents detailing a widespread strategy to deny evidence of smoking’s health risks.  “If (the defendants) had acknowledged and said ‘Hey, this is the truth, this is what we know: we are manufacturing death,’” Schlesinger said, “Mary never would have gotten sick, and millions of people never would have gotten sick.”

However, Belasic successfully contended that Cooper never relied on tobacco industry messaging in making her smoking decisions. In Friday’s closing arguments, Belasic reminded jurors that Cooper smoked despite widespread media reports of smoking’s health risks, and warnings printed on cigarette packs that began before Cooper started smoking. “(Cooper) admits every single pack she purchased had that warning,” Belasic said.

This is Cooper’s second trial within a year. In August 2014, Judge Tuter declared a mistrial when jurors were unable to reach a verdict in the case.

Neither the parties’ attorneys nor representatives for the tobacco companies could be immediately reached for comment.

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Topics: Negligence, Products Liability, tobacco, Engle Progeny, Florida, Cooper v. R.J. Reynolds