DeLand, FL—Jurors this week awarded $13.5 million to the family of a Florida smoker after finding R.J. Reynolds responsible for his respiratory disease-related death. Brown v. R.J. Reynolds, 2017 30003 CI.
The Florida state court jury, in the state’s Eighth Circuit, issued the award, which includes $5 million in compensatories handed down Thursday, and $8.5 million in punitives levied Friday afternoon against Reynolds for the 2003 emphysema-related death of Arthur Brown.
Brown’s family claims his decades of smoking, which they say started when he was about 15, caused his fatal emphysema and was driven by Reynolds’ participation in a scheme to hide the dangers of cigarettes throughout much of the 20th century.
The case is among 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.
In order to be entitled to those findings, however, each plaintiff must prove class membership by showing nicotine addiction caused a smoking-related disease such as emphysema.
Thursday’s verdict found Brown to be a member of the Engle class, but rejected the family’s claims of fraud and conspiracy against Reynolds.
Jurors Thursday apportioned 65% of responsibility to Reynolds, as successor to Brown & Williamson, original makers of the Viceroy cigarettes Brown smoked for years, and 35% to Arthur Brown himself.
The 13-day trial focused largely on what led to Brown’s smoking decisions. During closing arguments of the trial’s first phase Wednesday, Jones Day’s John Walker, representing Reynolds, criticized the plaintiff’s case as lacking real evidence of why Brown started smoking or why he continued. Walker reminded jurors there was no witness testimony to answer key questions of what cigarettes Brown favored for the first 25 years of his smoking history, why or even when he started smoking.
Instead, Walker said evidence showed Brown chose to smoke and was not interested in quitting in time to avoid his respiratory disease. “Before he got sick, not a single person ever saw him trying to stop smoking, and he never told anyone that he even wanted to stop smoking,” Walker said. “It was Mr. Brown’s choice to smoke, and that means that Mr. Brown is fully responsible for the choices he made not to try to stop.”
But Morgan & Morgan’s Kathryn Barnett, representing Brown’s family, contended Brown was misled by a strategy to cast doubt on evidence smoking’s health risks while falsely promoting products such as light and filtered cigarettes as safer alternatives.
During her closing argument Wednesday, Barnett reminded jurors of tobacco industry documents showing Reynolds and other tobacco companies engineered cigarettes to be as addictive as possible, all while hiding their addictiveness and dangers from the public at-large, and smokers like Brown.
“Mr. Brown never had any control over the cigarette design,” Barnett said. “You know when he taught his son that knowledge is power and power is knowledge? He was right about that. Reynolds had the power of the design of these cigarettes and the knowledge of how to use that to keep profits rolling in.”
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Brown family is represented by Morgan & Morgan’s Kathryn Barnett.
R.J. Reynolds is represented by Jones Day’s John Walker.
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