UPDATE: $6.8M Award, After $5M Punitive Verdict Against RJR, for Widow of Smoker Who Died From Lung Cancer

Posted by Arlin Crisco on May 12, 2017 11:00:54 AM

Update: Jurors imposed a $5 million punitive verdict Frday afternoon against R.J. Reynolds for the role the tobacco company played in Valton Sheffield's fatal lung cancer. The verdict, reached after about 90 minutes of deliberations, pushes the total award to $6.8 million to Sheffield's widow. 

Orlando, FL—A Florida State Court jury Thursday awarded $1.8 million to the widow of a Florida smoker who died after multiple bouts of lung cancer, and it found R.J. Reynolds potentially liable for punitive damages for the part it played in the man’s death. Sheffield v. R.J. Reynolds, 2013-CA-009469.

Jurors in the state’s Ninth Circuit Court, in Orange County, found Reynolds’ scheme to hide the dangers of cigarettes throughout much of the 20th century led to the cancer that took much of both of Valton Sheffield’s lungs before he ultimately died in 2007, at 88.

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Sheffield, who started smoking at 16, and smoked at least a pack of cigarettes a day for more than 40 years, had one lung’s lobe removed for cancer in 1994. The cancer ultimately returned in 2003 and again in 2006, leading to the removal of most of his remaining lung tissue before his death.

Sheffield’s widow, Mary, claims Reynolds’ role in hiding the dangers of smoking hooked her husband on cigarettes and caused his fatal cancer.

Mary Sheffield’s attorney, Colling, Gilbert, Wright & Carter’s Melvin Wright, requested $5.4 million in compensatory damages, plus a finding punitives were warranted, in Wednesday’s closing arguments.

The case is one of thousands of Florida’s Engle progeny lawsuits against the nation’s tobacco companies. They stem from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision decertifying Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a class-action tobacco suit originally filed in 1994. Although the state’s supreme court ruled that Engle-progeny cases must be tried individually, it found plaintiffs could rely on certain jury findings in the original case, including the determination that tobacco companies had placed a dangerous, addictive product on the market and had conspired to hide the dangers of smoking through much of the 20th century.

In order to be entitled to those findings, however, each Engle progeny plaintiff must prove the smoker at the heart of their case suffered from nicotine addiction that led to a specific smoking-related disease.

Trial centered on what made Sheffield smoke for four decades. During Wednesday’s closing arguments, Jones Day’s Emily Baker, representing Reynolds, told jurors Sheffield bore responsibility for the cancer that stemmed from his years of smoking. Baker argued testimony from Sheffield’s family showed he was well aware of the dangers of cigarettes, yet chose to smoke anyway.   “Mr. Sheffield smoked in the face of warnings all around him,” Baker said. “Not because he was addicted but because he wanted to smoke. He enjoyed it,” Baker added, noting Sheffield quit smoking in about 1985 without the relapses typical of nicotine addicts.

But Wright claims Sheffield started smoking as a teenager targeted by the tobacco industry and quickly became hooked on a habit it would take him decades to break. Wright noted expert testimony concluding Sheffield was addicted to nicotine and he argued his behavior, including his inability to quit smoking earlier, proved he was hooked on cigarettes. “Mr. Sheffield knew that his wife of 60 years really would have preferred that he quit. Don’t you think Mr. Sheffield, if he could break that addiction, would have done that for her?” Wright asked. “He did everything else for her. It was the one thing he couldn’t beat.”

Jurors apportioned 60% of liability to Reynolds and 40% to Sheffield himself.

Trial on punitives begins Friday morning.

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Related Information

Mary Sheffield is represented by Colling, Gilbert, Wright & Carter’s Melvin Wright and David Sales P.A.'s David Sales.

R.J. Reynolds is represented by Emily Baker and Jack Williams.

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Topics: tobacco, Engle Progeny, Florida, Sheffield v. R.J. Reynolds