Update: This article has been updated from an earlier version to reflect the jury verdict in favor of Philip Morris.
Miami, FL — Jurors late last week cleared Philip Morris of responsibility for the stroke a long-time smoker suffered, concluding Florida's first in-person, state court tobacco trial since the coronavirus pandemic emptied jury boxes a year ago. Olsen v. Philip Morris, 2017-CA-017150.
The 11th Circuit Court jury, in Dade County, found nicotine addiction did not legally cause Harry Olsen's coronary heart disease or cerebrovascular disease. The decision excludes Olsen's widow, who brought the case, from the so-called Engle class of plaintiffs potentially entitled to recover for smoking-related illness.
Harry Olsen suffered a stroke in 2003 following decades of smoking. Olsen later died for reasons unrelated to cigarettes. However, his wife, Rosemary, contends Philip Morris, maker of the Marlboros Olsen smoked for more than a quarter-century, is responsible for the coronary and cerebrovascular diseases she claims led to the stroke.
During Thursday’s closings, The Alvarez Law Firm’s Alex Alvarez highlighted internal documents he said showed Philip Morris’s participation in a decades-long conspiracy to hide the dangers of smoking. And Alvarez said Olsen smoked Philip Morris’s filtered and light brands believing the false claims that they were safer.
“Every pack of cigarettes that he bought that were Marlboros Lights had three frauds on it, three lies: ‘Filter,’ ‘Lights,’ ‘Lower tar,” Alvarez said. He wasn’t tricked, he believed it. That’s what they wanted him to believe.”
The case is one of thousands spun from Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a Florida state court class-action lawsuit originally filed in 1994. After a trial victory for the class members, the state’s supreme court ultimately decertified the class, but ruled that so-called Engle progeny cases may be tried individually. Engle progeny plaintiffs are entitled to the benefit of the jury's findings in the original verdict, including the determination that tobacco companies had placed a dangerous, addictive product on the market and hid the dangers of smoking, if they prove the smoker at the heart of the case suffered from nicotine addiction that was the legal cause of a smoking-related disease.
Philip Morris argues Olsen knew cigarettes were dangerous throughout much of his life, yet made no attempt to quit smoking until after he developed vascular disease. During Thursday’s closings, Shook Hardy & Bacon's William Geraghty walked jurors through evidence he said showed Olsen was never swayed by tobacco marketing. “Mr. Olsen knew that cigarette smoking was dangerous for decades. He saw it on the warning labels. He heard it on the news,” Geraghty told jurors. “Harry Olsen was always in control and therefore 100 percent responsible for his own actions.”
This is the first Engle progeny trial in Florida since a March 2020 Florida Supreme Court order first suspended jury proceedings due to the coronavirus pandemic. The 11th Circuit conducted the proceeding with a range of health and safety protocols in place. Judge Jose Rodriguez, attorneys, and socially distanced jurors alike wore face coverings throughout trial. Access to the courthouse itself was restricted to only essential personnel, with the circuit streaming proceedings over a Zoom feed to the circuit’s YouTube page.
Editor’s note: Due to COVID-19 safety restrictions currently in effect in the 11th Circuit, CVN was not permitted to cover proceedings with its own cameras. CVN has captured proceedings live from the 11th Circuit’s YouTube page and will offer them on demand as part of its trial video archive as soon as possible.
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.