Jacksonville, FL— Jurors last week awarded $6 million to a Florida woman after finding R.J. Reynolds responsible for the respiratory disease she developed after decades of smoking. Wydra v. R.J. Reynolds.
The award includes $3 million in compensatory damages and another $3 million in punitives for the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease Kathleen Wydra developed after smoking for more than 40 years. Wydra claims Reynolds’ participation in a tobacco industry-wide scheme to hide the dangers of smoking hooked her to cigarettes and ultimately led to her respiratory disease.
The lawsuit is one of thousands of so-called Engle-progeny cases, claims spun from a 1990s class action by Florida smokers against the nation’s tobacco companies. 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 that caused a disease.
The 8-day trial turned in part on what drove Kathleen Wydra to smoke for decades. Reynolds argued that Wydra chose to smoke and did not make enough of an effort to quit cigarettes in time to avoid her respiratory disease. During closings of the trial’s phase on class membership, Jones Day’s Emily Baker told jurors that, from the 1960s until 1996, Wydra never went one day without smoking.
“When she quit [in 1998], she proved she always had the ability to stop smoking,” Baker said. “She always had the ability to stop smoking when she was committed to do it.”
But Wydra’s attorneys argued she was a heavily addicted smoker who had been taken in by tobacco messaging designed to undercut the addictive nature and dangers of cigarettes. During closings last week, Avera & Smith’s Rod Smith told jurors Wydra smoked low-tar, menthol, filtered cigarettes for years because she believed false tobacco messaging that they were safer.
“She bought it hook, line, and sinker,” Smith said. “She thought she was smoking the safest product on the market and in fact she was smoking a cigarette that was just as dangerous as the [unfiltered cigarettes] her husband smoked….”
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