Miami, FL—Jurors sided with the widow of a longtime Florida smoker who died of lung cancer, awarding her $5 million in compensatory damages and rejecting claims by the tobacco company that the lawsuit was time-barred. Mathis v. R.J. Reynolds, 2007-CA-47118.
Jurors also agreed that Robert Mathis, who died in June 1997, was partially responsible for the lung cancer that led to his death, and split responsibility for the smoking-related illness nearly equally between Mathis and R.J. Reynolds, the maker of the cigarettes he smoked for nearly 50 years. Mathis was found to be 45% responsible while R.J. Reynolds was apportioned 55% responsibility. No punitive damages were awarded.
Mathis' case was brought by his widow, Hazel, in connection with the class action lawsuit, Engle v. Liggett Group. That 1994 class action involved Florida smokers who successfully sued U.S. tobacco companies after claiming they hid the dangers and addictiveness of cigarettes from the public. The Florida Supreme Court affirmed the jury's findings but decertified the class. To prevail, plaintiffs such as Mathis must file their claims individually and prove the smokers at the centers of their cases suffered from nicotine addiction that caused a smoking-related disease. However, to fall within the ambit of the Engle class, a smoking-related disease must "manifest" itself before November 21, 1996.
A central issue in Mathis' case was whether his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which wasn't diagnosed until January 1997 along with his lung cancer, actually manifested before the bar date to qualify Hazel Mathis as an Engle class member. Many medical records prior to Mathis' cancer diagnosis were unavailable at trial. However, Hazel Mathis and her daughters all testified that Robert Mathis showed symptoms of COPD months and even years before his death.
"We can reconstruct from the family testimony and from the records that we have what symptoms did Robert Mathis have before November 21st of 1996 because he has to have those before so that Hazel can qualify as an Engle class member," said William Wichmann, who represents Hazel Mathis. "He had a cough, he had shortness of breath, and he had these symptoms going back at least a year-and-a-half before his death.”
Mathis smoked menthol king-sized Kool cigarettes, a brand Wichmann said at one point had the highest nicotine delivery of all king-size cigarettees– and a fact the attorney said R.J. Reynolds hid from consumers. "We don't accept responsibility for their intentional conduct, for what they did on purpose, for their lies, for their conspiracy, for their concealing this information," Wichmann said. "Why? Because Robert Mathis didn’t know the Kool cigarettes he smoked had the highest nicotine delivery out there."
But King & Spalding attorney Ray Persons, who represents R.J. Reynolds, said in his closing that Mathis never relied on anything his client or any tobacco company ever said, and there was no connection between cigarette advertising and Mathis' smoking habits.
“There was no statement—you heard the family members," Persons said. "There was no statement that he received from R.J. Reynolds tobacco company or any other entity upon which he reasonably relied. Bottom line, Mr. Mathis did not die because the dangers and addictiveness of smoking were unknown or unavailable to him. Doesn’t have to be known, although the evidence is that he did know that it was addictive, and he did know that it was dangerous."
William Wichmann, of the Law Offices of William J. WIchmann, represents Hazel Mathis.
Ray Persons, of King & Spalding, represents R.J. Reynolds.