Miami—R.J. Reynolds was cleared of liability Wednesday for the cancer death of a 52-year-old Florida smoker who switched to the company's cigarettes after emigrating from Cuba. Eulalia Lopez v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 2008-CA-76453.
Jurors in the state’s 11th Circuit, sitting in Dade County, deliberated for less than an hour before concluding an addiction to Reynolds cigarettes did not cause Juan Lopez’s 1994 death.
Lopez, a smoker for years in his home country of Cuba, began smoking Winston cigarettes sometime after moving to the U.S. around 1979. He continued to smoke the cigarettes, made at the time by Reynolds, until his cancer diagnosis in October of 1993. He died about four months later.
Reynolds ultimately sold the Winston brand as part of a 2014 deal to purchase Lorillard Tobacco Co.
Lopez’s family claims his cancer stemmed from an addiction to Reynolds cigarettes and the tobacco giant’s concealment of smoking’s dangers.
During Wednesday’s closings, the Lopez family’s attorney, Kelley/Uustal’s Eric Rosen, sought $16 million in compensatory damages, including $8 million for Lopez’s widow, Eulalia, and $4 million for each of his two children, plus punitives.
The case is one of thousands of Florida’s so-called 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.
To be entitled to damages, however, each plaintiff must, at a minimum, prove addiction that led to a smoking-related disease, such as lung cancer.
What link, if any, existed between Reynolds and Lopez’s cancer played a central role in the case, with both Lopez’s history of smoking Cuban cigarettes and his asbestosis, a lung disease caused by carcinogenic asbestos exposure, serving as key points of contention.
During Wednesday’s closings, Rosen argued evidence, including testimony from oncology expert Dr. William Abel, proved Lopez’s years of smoking Winstons combined with his smoking of Cuban cigarettes and his asbestosis to cause his lung cancer. “Legal cause recognizes that it’s not always... one thing that we can pinpoint,” Rosen said. “Multiple things can happen at one time and lead to a result.”
Rosen contended Reynolds' Winstons, and the company's marketing, which he said targeted Florida’s Hispanic population, served as a key barrier to prevent Lopez from quitting. “They did everything in their power… to keep him addicted, and to keep him smoking,” Rosen said.
But King & Spalding’s Ursula Henninger, representing Reynolds, argued evidence showed Lopez’s smoking was a product of Cuban smoking culture, not American tobacco marketing. Henninger told jurors Lopez, who allegedly smoked for about 20 years before immigrating to the U.S., was already hooked on cigarettes long before he picked up his first pack of Winstons. “Mr. Lopez is the wrong smoker [for an Engle-progeny claim], Winston cigarettes are the wrong cigarettes, and my client… is definitely the wrong defendant,” Henninger said.
King & Spalding’s Philip Green added that Lopez likely would have developed cancer even if he had never smoked a single Winston. Green reminded jurors that Abel, plaintiff's oncology expert, acknowledged that either Lopez's asbestosis or his roughly 20 years of smoking Cuban cigarettes was sufficient on its own to cause Lopez’s lung cancer. “When you combine that smoking history, that smoking history in Cuba, with the asbestosis… [it’s] more than sufficient to cause Mr. Lopez’s lung cancer,” Green said.
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Eulalia Lopez is represented by Kelley/Uustal’s Eric Rosen.
R.J. Reynolds is represented by King & Spalding’s Ursula Henninger and Philip Green.