Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect the punitive damage award imposed against the defendants.
St. Petersburg, FL—Jurors awarded $5.8 million in damages to the family of a 2-pack-a-day smoker who died of lung cancer, after concluding the nation's largest tobacco companies concealed the dangers of the cigarettes they found led to her death. Brown v. Philip Morris, et al., 15-002451-CI.
The Florida Sixth Circuit Court deliberated about five hours before rendering Wednesday's verdict on compensatory damages, which awarded $1.8 million each to the husband and two children of Maria Joyce Brown, who began smoking as a teenager and died in 1995 at the age of 47. The panel apportioned liability evenly between Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds at 35% each, while holding Brown 30% responsible.
After a separate, day-and-a-half punitive phase, jurors Friday then imposed an additional $200,000 in punitive damages each against the tobacco companies for their conduct.
Attorneys for Brown's family argued Brown was the victim of a conspiracy to hide the dangers of cigarettes and the manufacturers targeted young teens to be replacement smokers as older smokers died.
"[The cigarette mnanufacturers] needed children in order to sustain their business model,” said the Brown family's attorney, Brent Bigger of Knopf Bigger, in his closing argument to jurors. “Just like they needed her to, she was smoking by 16 years old.”
However, the defense argued Brown was not swayed by tobacco marketing and made her own decision to smoke, despite the urging of family members throughout her life. "You learned that Joyce Brown was a strong, intelligent, and independent person who chose to live her life the way she wanted to live it," said Philip Morris attorney William Geraghty, of Shook Hardy, in his closing statement. "Her parents strongly discouraged her from smoking when she was young…. She told people it was her decision whether or not she smoked cigarettes. It was her prerogative to smoke."
R.J. Reynolds attorney Emily Baker, of Jones Day, told jurors her refusal to listen to her family's warnings proved tobacco company messaging could not persuade her. "If the warnings from her own family, her trusted sources, if those made no difference, then you know that Joyce Brown wasn’t waiting to hear something from Philip Morris or Reynolds," Baker said. "You know that she wasn’t looking to tobacco companies to get her health information."
Brown quit in 1986 after she became pregnant with her son, but her husband said she remained a closet smoker and never truly quit.
Brown's case is one of thousands of Engle progeny cases in Florida, which 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 so-called 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. However, individual Engle-progeny plaintiffs must prove a variety of elements to establish class membership, including nicotine addiction and a causal link between that addiction and specific health problems such as lung cancer.
Trial to determine punitive damages continues this week.
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John Brown is represented by Eric Roslansky of The Ruth Law Team and Brent Bigger of Knopf Bigger.
Philip Morris is represented by Shook Hardy’s William Geraghty and Jennifer Voss.
R.J. Reynolds is represented by Emily Baker of Jones Day.
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