Miami, FL— Attorneys Tuesday debated what, if any, financial punishment should be imposed against R.J. Reynolds for the throat cancer death of a Florida smoker, as a punitives-only proceeding opened another chapter in a long-running case against the tobacco giant. Ledo v. R.J. Reynolds, 2002-CA-000113.
Jose Ledo died of laryngeal cancer in 1996, after years of smoking Reynolds’ Winston-brand cigarettes. On Tuesday, the Ledo family's attorney, Parafinczuk Wolf's Austin Carr, told jurors that, while a compensatory award had already been handed down against the company, he would prove that Reynolds' role in Ledo's death, through its manufacture of defective cigarettes, warranted harsh financial punishment.
“The first jury decided that $2.9 million was just compensation for the loss of a father and the loss of a husband,” Carr told jurors. “This case is about punishment. And the evidence will show that $2.9 million is not punishment for a company worth $24.1 billion,” Carr said. “We’re here to punish, to make a difference, and make change.”
The case is one of thousands of so-called “Engle-progeny” claims, lawsuits spun from an ultimately decertified 1990s class action by Florida smokers against the nation’s tobacco companies. In decertifying the class following a trial court verdict against the companies, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that individual Engle progeny plaintiffs can recover only if they prove the smoker at the heart of each case was addicted to cigarettes that legally caused a smoking-related illness.
The Ledo case has seen a number of Florida state court juries throughout its progression. In 2016, jurors in the case's first trial found in favor of the Ledo family on its Engle class membership claim. That jury apportioned 49% of responsibility to the cigarette maker, ultimately reducing its $6 million compensatory award to $2.9 million. Those jurors also found punitive damages were potentially warranted in the case, but did not further determine that issue after a directed verdict was entered in favor of Reynolds on the punitive claim. However, that directed verdict was reversed on appeal, sending the case back to the trial court for further consideration of punitives. Then, in 2021, a post-verdict mistrial was declared in the case’s first punitives-only proceeding, setting up this latest tilt in the courtroom.
Reynolds contends financial punishment isn’t warranted in the case. During Tuesday’s openings, King & Spalding’s Drew Bell told jurors that cigarettes were inherently dangerous and there was nothing to indicate Reynolds’ Winstons had a specific design defect that would support the imposition of punitives.
“What the evidence is going to show is that, from the 1960s to the 1990s, which is the time period we’re talking about here, that ordinary consumers, the smokers, expected cigarettes to be harmful and cause throat cancer, heart disease, and lung cancer,” Bell said.
Trial in the case is expected to last about a week.
Email Arlin Crisco at email@example.com.
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