Miami, FL— Jurors heard opening statements Friday over what financial punishment, if any, R.J. Reynolds should pay for the throat cancer death of a Florida smoker a quarter-century ago, and nearly five years after a multi-million-dollar compensatory award in the case. Ledo v. R.J. Reynolds, 2002-CA-000113.
“[Jose Ledo] died in 1996 and there’s been no punishment for 25 years,” Parafinczuk Wolf's Austin Carr, who represents Ledo’s family, told jurors. “R.J. Reynolds played 49% responsibility in a man’s death. That’s a big number.”
Ledo died of laryngeal cancer after decades of smoking Reynolds’ Winston-brand cigarettes. Ledo’s family claims Reynolds caused his cancer by concealing the dangers and addictiveness of smoking. While a jury in 2016 handed down a $6 million compensatory award in the case, apportioning 49% of responsibility for Ledo’s death to Reynolds and finding punitive damages warranted, a directed verdict was granted in favor of Reynolds as to the family’s punitive claims.
However, that directed verdict was reversed by Florida's Third District Court of Appeal in 2019, setting up the current trial over punitives.
On Monday, Carr told jurors that punitives were warranted because of Reynolds’ participation in a decades-long, industry-wide conspiracy to hide the risks of cigarettes through marketing initiatives and false statements made to the public.
“The product maker is the one who knows the most about the product,” Carr said. “In this case, the product maker wasn’t telling the public what they knew about the product.”
Reynolds counters that financial punishment isn’t appropriate, given Ledo’s own responsibility for his smoking, as well as the company’s current conduct.
During Monday’s openings, King & Spalding’s Jeffrey Furr said the 2016 trial determined Ledo himself was 51% responsible for his cancer, and that he never relied to his detriment on a tobacco-industry statement when making his smoking decisions.
“Make no mistake about it. R.J. Reynolds made some mistakes. They did some things they shouldn’t have,” Furr said. “But those actions did not cause Mr. Ledo’s laryngeal cancer and death.”
Furr added that the modern-day Reynolds was a different, more transparent company than the one that sold cigarettes to Ledo. “Their conduct has changed,” Furr said, before highlighting the company’s disclosure on the risks of cigarettes and the industry’s regulation by the FDA. “The past can never happen again.”
The case is among thousands that stem from Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a 1994 Florida state court class-action lawsuit against tobacco companies. 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.
To be entitled to those findings, however, each plaintiff must prove the smoker at the heart of their case suffered from nicotine addiction that was the legal cause of a smoking-related disease. The jury in the 2016 trial found in favor of the plaintiff on those issues.
Trial in the case is expected to run through the end of the week.
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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