Gainesville, FL— R.J. Reynolds was hit with a $13.5 million punitive verdict Thursday for its part in the throat cancer death of a Florida smoker. Bessent-Dixon v. R.J. Reynolds, 2015-CA-002554.
The verdict capped a three-day, punitives-only trial over the 1994 death of Tyrone Dixon, who had smoked Reynolds cigarettes for years. Last August, a previous jury found Reynolds responsible for nicotine addiction that led to Dixon’s fatal throat cancer. That jury awarded $2 million in compensatory damages to Dixon’s family and found that punitives were potentially warranted.
However, Ninth Circuit Court Judge Donna Keim declared a mistrial during the punitive phase of the August proceeding, leading to this week’s retrial on punitives.
The case is one of thousands that stem from Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a 1994 Florida state court class-action lawsuit against Reynolds and the nation's other tobacco companies, in which jurors found for the plaintiffs. The state's supreme court later decertified the class, but ruled Engle progeny cases may be tried individually. Plaintiffs are entitled to the benefit of the jury's findings in the original verdict, including the determination that tobacco companies placed a dangerous, addictive product on the market and hid the dangers of smoking.
This week’s trial on punitives focused largely on whether changes in Reynolds’ policies and the tobacco industry at-large mitigated against imposing stiff financial punishment for its role in a sweeping conspiracy to hide the dangers of smoking for decades in the 20th century.
During Thursday’s closings, King & Spalding’s Ray Persons reminded jurors Reynolds has publicly acknowledged since 2000 that smoking is dangerous and addictive, and the industry as a whole is now regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Punitives, he said, would do nothing to more to deter a Reynolds that had changed its policies from the days of the conspiracy.
However, Avera & Smith’s Rod Smith countered that the changes touted by Reynolds were outweighed by a decades-long conspiracy that killed Dixon, among 20 million other Americans during its run. “What could be more worthy of punishment,and what could be more worthy of a message of deterrence,” Smith asked, “than people who, for half a century, two generations, found lying to be the guardrails of their business?”
Email Arlin Crisco at email@example.com.
Plaintiffs are represented by Avera & Smith’s Rod Smith.
The defense is represented by King & Spalding's Ray Persons.
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