Jury Slaps RJR With $6.4M Verdict, but $0 Punitives, in Trial Over Smoker's Fatal Emphysema

Posted by Meghan Gourley on Sep 30, 2016 7:13:10 PM

Jacksonville, FL—Jurors awarded $6.4 million to the family of a Florida smoker who died of emphysema, but handed down a $0 punitive verdict Thursday, one day after finding R.J. Reynolds potentially liable for punitives for its role in the smoker's death. Prentice v. R.J. Reynolds, 2008-CA-000386.

Wednesday's $6.4 million compensatory award against Reynolds followed a two-week trial over the 2010 death of John Price, 74, a heavy smoker for decades before his death. Price's family claims Reynolds' participation in a decades-long conspiracy to hide the dangers of smoking, led to Price's nicotine addiction and fatal respiratory disease.

Mogan & Morgan's Keith Mitnik, representing Price's family, requested $10 million in compensatories during Tuesday's closings. 

The case is one of thousands of similar Florida lawsuits against the nation’s tobacco companies. The cases arise from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision decertifying Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a class action lawsuit originally filed in 1994. Although the state’s supreme court ruled each plaintiff’s case must be tried individually, it found plaintiffs could rely on certain jury findings in the original verdict, including the determination that tobacco companies had placed a dangerous, addictive product on the market and had hidden the dangers of smoking. 

The question of addiction played a central role during the first phase of the trial. During Tuesday's closings, Jones Day's John Walker, representing Reynolds, told jurors evidence showed Price knew smoking was dangerous but did not make a concerted effort to quit in time to avoid his deadly emphysema. "Nothing stopped Mr. Price from quitting smoking when quitting would have avoided his emphysema," Walker said. "And the decision whether to make that attempt or to continue smoking always belongs to the smoker, and Mr. Price simply didn’t try."

Walker said Price acknowledged, in depositions taken prior to his death, that he didn't act on Surgeon General's warnings concerning smoking printed on cigarette packs since the 1960s. "He saw the warning. He said he didn't heed it," Walker said. "He didn't pay attention to it. He just said 'whatever.'"

But Mitnik told jurors Price's smoking was fueled by a powerful nicotine addiction that drove him to have three to four cigarettes every hour he was awake.  "Nobody gets up first thing in the morning before their feet hardly hit the ground and light up and suck smoke into their lungs and do it again every 15 to 20 minutes every single day. No time off," Mitnik said, arguing the addiction that drove Price's smoking also drove tobacco company profits. "But that’s the way the money really flows," he said, describing Price as a "cigarette company success story."

Mitnik walked jurors through decades of tobacco industry documents plotting the most effective ways to cast doubt on the growing weight of scientific evidence throughout the 20th century concerning smoking's dangers. "The web of deceit was massive and well-funded and extraordinarily planned and brilliantly executed."

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The jury's verdict Wednesday, which apportioned 60% of fault to Price and 40% to Reynolds, included a finding that the tobacco company was liable for potential punitives. However, after a one-day second phase, jurors declined to award punitives in the case. 

The trial's punitive phase centered on whether Reynolds changes over the last two decades warranted reducing or avoiding punitives against the company for the concealment jurors found caused Price's death. 

During Thursday's closings, Keith Mitnik told jurors Reynolds' claims of wholesale changes in their company and the tobacco industry at-large belied the fact that it still sold addictive, dangerous cigarettes. "They say 'We're changed. [Former Reynolds insider] Claude Teague and [those] folks are gone.' It's new faces but the same problem," Mitnik said. "They still have an iron grip on nicotine addiction."

Mitnik requested $19.5 million in punitives, arguing that award would help encourage Reynolds to change its direction. "They acknowledge it's addictive. But that's it and then it's all sugar-coated, downplayed. Anything but acknowledging openly that's the problem," Mitnik said. "Because it is the profit center and the engine that's turbo-charged, and they're clinging to it. And they need a little encouragement."

However, Walker successfully argued sweeping changes in the tobacco industry and Reynolds' internal changes warranted a rejection of punitive damages. Walker highlighted regulatory and industry overhauls, including federal oversight of cigarette manufacture and a sweeping Master Settlement Agreement with states' attorneys general that funded anti-smoking initiatives and restricted tobacco marketing.

Walker also told jurors the industry-funded agencies and programs designed to hide the dangers of smoking were swept away, along with company leadership that had engaged in the scheme.  "R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. of 2016 is going to be writing the check that you award," Walker said. "Is there anyone there that did any of these things that deserve punishment? No."

 Related information

Plaintiffs are represented by Morgan & Morgan’s Keith Mitnik.

RJ Reynolds is represented by Jones Day’s John Walker.

Watch the trial on demand.

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Topics: Products Liability, tobacco, Engle Progeny, Florida, Prentice v. R.J. Reynolds

Topics: Products Liability, tobacco, Engle Progeny, Florida, Prentice v. R.J. Reynolds