West Palm Beach, FL— R.J. Reynolds was cleared of fault Wednesday for the cancer that killed a Florida man who had smoked for more than 40 years. Richter v. R.J. Reynolds, 2008-CA-038650.
Jurors in Florida’s 15th Circuit, in Palm Beach County, needed about two hours to conclude nicotine addiction did not cause Edward Richter’s 1996 lung cancer death.
Richter had started smoking as a teenager in the 1950s and continued smoking two packs a day, favoring Reynolds’s Winston and Salem brands through much of his life. His family claims the tobacco giant’s attempts to hide the dangers of smoking through much of the 20th century hooked Richter to cigarettes and ultimately killed him.
During Wednesday’s closings, Engstrom Lipscomb & Lack’s Michael Lewis requested between $7-11 million in compensatory damages, while William Wichmann, of The Law Offices of William J. Wichmann, P.A., requested a finding that punitives were warranted.
The lawsuit is among thousands of claims that stem from Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a 1994 Florida state court class-action case against the nation’s tobacco companies. The state's supreme court ultimately decertified the class, but ruled that so-called 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 conspired to hide the dangers of smoking. However, in order to be entitled to those findings, plaintiffs must prove the smokers at the heart of their cases suffered from nicotine addiction that caused a smoking-related disease.
Much of the nine-day trial focused on what drove Richter to smoke for more than four decades. During Wednesday’s closings, Wichmann walked jurors through evidence he said showed Richter became powerfully addicted to smoking and successfully quit only after being physically unable to smoke during an extended hospital stay.
Wichmann reminded jurors of testimony from Richter’s wife, who said he would sometimes smoke from discarded cigarette butts when he ran out of cigarettes. “Does that sound like somebody who likes [smoking], who’s rooting through an ashtray full of cigarette butts?” Wichmann asked. “That sounds like someone who needs that hit of nicotine.”
But Reynolds argued Richter knew the dangers of cigarettes, yet chose to continue smoking and did not do enough to quit in time to avoid his cancer. During Wednesday’s closings, King & Spalding’s Jason Keehfus told jurors that Richter’s wife implored him for years to stop smoking. “She could tell Mr. Richter all she wanted that smoking was going to harm him,” Keehfus said, “but he was going to keep doing it, because that’s what he liked to do.”
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