Tampa, FL— R.J. Reynolds was hit with a $10 million total verdict last week for the role jurors found the company played in the bladder cancer a Florida man developed after decades of smoking. Rutkowski v. R.J. Reynolds, 2007-CA-014667.
Jurors in Florida’s 13th Judicial Circuit handed down the award, which includes roughly $5 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitives, for the bladder cancer Joseph Rutkowski was diagnosed with in 1993.
Rutkowski, who began smoking as a teenager in the 1950s and continued until quitting in 1986, claims Reynolds cigarettes, and the company’s involvement in a decades-long conspiracy to hide the dangers of smoking, hooked him to nicotine and caused his cancer.
Rutkowski’s case is one of thousands of so-called “Engle-progeny” claims, which are spun from a 1990s class action by Florida smokers against the nation’s cigarette makers. After a trial court verdict in favor of the plaintiffs, the Florida Supreme Court decertified the class, ruling individual plaintiffs could recover only if they proved the smoker at the heart of each case was addicted to cigarettes and that addiction legally caused their disease.
Reynolds contends Rutkowski chose to smoke and wasn’t seriously interested in quitting cigarettes in time to avoid his cancer. During closings of the trial’s phase on class membership and compensatory damages last Wednesday, Jones Day’s John Walker highlighted evidence that he said showed that Rutkowski's smoking decisions were driven by his own preferences. And he said Rutkowski ignored decades of warnings about cigarettes before he successfully stopped smoking when he was truly motivated to quit.
“That is the real Mr. Rutkowski: the person who made his own choices about his smoking, choices no one else could have made for him,” Walker said. "And the person who, in fairness, bears personal responsibility for the consequences of those same choices."
But Rutkowski’s attorney, Gordon & Partners’ Gary Paige, highlighted evidence he said proved Rutkowski’s smoking was driven by addiction.
Rutkowski, Paige said, smoked between 1 and 4 packs of cigarettes a day for 30 years and became irritable and nervous whenever he did not smoke.
“It would be almost impossible, it probably is impossible, for somebody to smoke that much, get that much nicotine to the brain, and change your brain and nicotinic receptors,” Paige said, “and not be addicted to nicotine.”
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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