Pensacola, FL— Five years after being hit with a $23.6 billion verdict that made headlines across the country, and two years after an appellate court threw out that decision, R.J. Reynolds opened retrial Wednesday over its alleged role in the 1996 cancer death of a Florida man. Robinson v. R.J. Reynolds, 2008-CA-000098.
Michael Johnson, 36, died after more than 20 years of smoking. Johnson’s widow, Cynthia, contends Reynolds’s role in a scheme to hide the dangers of cigarettes hooked her husband to nicotine and eventually led to his death from lung cancer.
The case, one of thousands of Florida’s so-called Engle progeny lawsuits against the nation’s tobacco companies, made headlines in 2014 when jurors hit Reynolds with a $23.6 billion punitive verdict, on top of more than $16 million in compensatories. The verdict was, by far, the largest damage award ever rendered in the Engle line of cases.
The trial court subsequently granted a defense request for retrial on punitives but denied a new trial on compensatories and Engle class membership. However, in 2017, the state’s First District Court of Appeal threw out the entire verdict, concluding a variety of improper comments by plaintiff’s counsel denied Reynolds a fair trial.
During openings of the retrial Wednesday, Cynthia Robinson’s attorney, Howard Acosta, of the Law Offices of Howard Acosta, walked jurors through tobacco industry documents he said showed Reynolds took part in a scheme through much of the 20th century to undermine evidence of smoking’s dangers. “[Reynolds] chose to conceal instead of reveal what it knew about cigarette smoking and what it knew about nicotine,” Acosta said.
Acosta told jurors Johnson, who started smoking as a child, quickly became heavily addicted to nicotine. Acosta said Johnson was so hooked he failed in numerous quit attempts and continued smoking even after his cancer diagnosis. “He smoked like the industry intended him to smoke, and he became addicted, and it caused him to die,” Acosta said.
But the defense countered that Johnson smoked despite being warned throughout his life. During Wednesday’s openings, Jones Day’s Stephanie Parker told jurors every pack of cigarettes Johnson smoked bore a health warning, while Johnson’s family implored him to quit, pointing to the smoking-related death of Johnson’s own father. “He knew that smoking had health risks and could cause lung cancer,” Parker said.
Parker added that Johnson enjoyed smoking and was never truly interested in quitting. “He liked to smoke. And he never made a serious effort to quit, because he didn’t want to,” Parker said. “That’s how he wanted to live his life.”
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.
Trial is expected to run through next week.
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cynthia Robinson is represented by Willie Gary, of Gary, Williams, Parenti, Watson & Gary; Howard Acosta, of the Law Offices of Howard Acosta; and Maria Sperando, of Sperando Law.
R.J. Reynolds is represented by Jones Day’s Stephanie Parker, Jack Williams, and Tim Fiorta.
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