R.J. Reynolds Prevails in $9M Suit Over Smoker's Deadly Lung Cancer

Posted by Arlin Crisco on Oct 26, 2015 2:50:00 PM

Randall Bassett tells jurors David Robertson was not a "tortured" smoker addicted to nicotine during closings of Irene Robertson's suit against Bassett's client, R.J. Reynolds. The tobacco company prevailed Monday against Irene Roberton's claim that Reynolds' was liable for her husband's nicotine addiction and fatal cancer. Watch the trial.

Fort Lauderdale, FL—Jurors Monday cleared R.J. Reynolds of liability for the lung cancer death of a Florida plaster worker who smoked for more than five decades. Robertson v. R.J. Reynolds, 07-CV-36442.

The six-member jury answered no to the preliminary question of whether David Robertson, the smoker at the case’s heart, was addicted to nicotine that caused his lung cancer. 

Robertson died from cancer in 1997 at age 68, after more than 50 years of smoking, including decades of smoking Reynolds’ Camel-brand cigarettes. His widow, Irene, claimed Reynolds’ participation in a conspiracy to hide the dangers of cigarettes led to her husband’s nicotine addiction and eventual cancer.

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Irene Robertson's attorney, Kelley Uustal’s Peter Spillis, requested $9 million in compensatory damages, plus unspecified punitives in Friday’s closings.

The question of addiction and its link to Robertson's cancer played a central role in the trial. During Friday’s closings, Spillis argued Robertson bore all the tell-tale signs of nicotine addiction, including smoking in bed, smoking when he first woke up in the morning, and constantly craving cigarettes.

Spillis reminded jurors of testimony from Robertson’s son, Thomas, who detailed his father’s failed quit attempts and noted Robertson was “irritable” and “fidgety” when he tried to quit smoking. Spillis argued the failed quit attempts highlighted the strength of Robertson’s nicotine addiction rather than serve as evidence against it. “In spite of him trying, he wasn’t able to kick (smoking). Like millions of people aren’t,” Spillis said.

“That doesn’t mean there aren’t millions of people who do kick it, because there are. But he was one of those that couldn’t.”

However, Reynolds argued Robertson was not a “tortured” smoker addicted to nicotine, but smoke by choice. During Friday’s closings, King & Spalding’s Randall Bassett reminded jurors addiction expert Dr. Jack Abramson concluded Robertson did not meet clinical requirements for nicotine addiction. Bassett argued smoking did not interfere with Roberston’s daily life, and noted Robertson regularly went without cigarettes during long church services and readily agreed to his wife’s request not to smoke in the house.

Bassett also argued witness testimony established Robertson never considered himself a nicotine addict. “Smokers who are being tortured by smoking, who are desperate to quit, say ‘I wish I could quit,’” Bassett said. “That’s not what Mr. Robertson ever told any witness that you ever heard in this courtroom. (Addicted smokers) say I cannot stop smoking.

“Again, that’s not something you ever heard from Mr. Robertson.”

The case is one of thousands of Engle progeny cases in Florida, in which individual plaintiffs must show the smoker at each case’s center was addicted to cigarettes that caused a smoking-related disease in order to establish membership eligibility in the original class action, 1994’s Engle v. Liggett Group. Although the Florida Supreme Court decertified that class on appeal in 1999, it ruled individual plaintiffs who established class membership could rely on the original jury's findings in that case, including that cigarettes are a dangerous product and tobacco companies concealed its health effects.

Neither the parties’ attorneys nor Reynolds representatives could be immediately reached for comment.

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Related Information

Kelley Uustal’s Peter Spillis represents Irene Robertson. King & Spalding’s Randall Bassett represents R.J. Reynolds.

Watch gavel-to-gavel coverage of the trial. 

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Topics: Negligence, Products Liability, tobacco, Engle Progeny, Florida, Robertson v. R.J. Reynolds