Miami— R.J. Reynolds was cleared Friday of responsibility for the death of a South Florida grandmother who smoked for more than 40 years. Cohen v. R.J. Reynolds, 2014-CA-018677.
A jury in Florida’s 11th Judicial Circuit, in Dade County, deliberated more than 10 hours before concluding Shirley Cohen was not a member of a class of smokers entitled to recover damages for smoking-related disease caused by cigarettes.
Cohen, 65 when she died in 1994, began smoking at about 16 and continued until doctors 1991, about the time when doctors diagnosed her with cancer. Her son, Mark, claims she died of complications caused by lung cancer treatment.
Mark Cohen’s attorney, The Alvarez Law Firm’s Alex Alvarez, requested about $9.6 million dollars in compensatory damages plus a finding punitives were warranted, during Thursday’s closing arguments.
The case is one of 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.
To be considered part of the class entitled to damages, however, plaintiffs must prove at a minimum that the smoker at the heart of their case suffered from nicotine addiction that caused a smoking-related disease such as lung cancer.
The nine-day trial focused largely on whether Cohen was addicted to cigarettes and what link any addiction played to her cancer.
During Thursday’s closings Alvarez argued expert testimony, combined with Cohen’s own smoking history proved she was hooked on cigarettes. Alvarez told jurors Cohen would start and end each day with a cigarette, failed in multiple quit attempts, and would sit outside to smoke while her grandchild visited. “If she wasn’t addicted, why would she… have to go outside and smoke a cigarette instead of being next to her grandkids,” Alvarez said, highlighting a photo of Cohen smoking outside while looking through a sliding glass door at her grandchild. “She needed [to smoke], she [was] compelled, she was addicted.”
But King & Spalding's Ray Persons, representing Reynolds, argued Cohen’s own choices, rather than addiction, caused her cancer. Persons reminded jurors Cohen did not try to quit smoking from the 1950s through the 70s and did not quit for a full day until she successfully stopped smoking for good in 1991. And Persons reminded jurors of defense expert testimony that Cohen was not nicotine dependent. “Mrs. Cohen was one of the 50% of daily smokers who are not addicted,” Persons said. “And she had the ability to quit for good throughout her life.”
Email Arlin Crisco at acrisco@ cvn.com.
Mark Cohen is represented by The Alvarez Law Firm’s Alex Alvarez, Philip Holden, and Nick Reyes.
R.J. Reynolds is represented by King & Spalding’s Ray Persons, James Cone, and Scott Edson.