Tampa, FL— Jurors Friday cleared R.J. Reynolds of responsibility at trial over the death of a Florida mother of 9, when they found she did not suffer from smoking-related respiratory disease. Ellis v. R.J. Reynolds, 10-A-016308.
The Florida 13th Circuit Court jury needed about 90 minutes to conclude Loretta Ellis did not suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, caused by more than 50 years of smoking.
Ellis, 82, died in 2010. Her son, George, along with three of his siblings, claims his mother died of COPD stemming from an addiction to cigarettes and Reynolds’ participation in a sweeping conspiracy to hide the dangers of smoking.
The Ferraro Law Firm’s Allan Kaiser, representing Ellis’ family, requested more than $9 million in compensatory damages, plus a finding that punitives were warranted.
The case is one of thousands that stem from Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a 1994 Florida state court class-action lawsuit against Reynolds and the nation's other tobacco companies, in which jurors found for the plaintiffs. 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 between May 5, 1990 and November 21, 1996.
During Friday’s closings, Kaiser highlighted medical evidence he said showed Ellis, who favored RJR's Winston cigarettes for much of her life, suffered from COPD in the early 1990s that progressed until it turned fatal. Kaiser detailed emergency room and other hospital visits in which healthcare professionals described Ellis as suffering from COPD and treated her for the disease. “When you look at the total picture here: you see all these symptoms, the smoking history, the medication, the hypoxia, what does it tell you?” Kaiser asked. “That by September 10 of 1996, Ms. Ellis had COPD.”
But the defense argued Ellis actually suffered from asthma and restrictive lung disease unrelated to smoking, and even if Ellis eventually developed COPD, it did not manifest before the November 21, 1996 cutoff date. During Friday’s closings, Jones Day’s Steven Geise highlighted testimony from Dr. Nicholas Hill, plaintiff’s expert, which Geise said equivocated on the question of Ellis’ COPD. “This is their expert on direct examination, saying he doesn’t have enough information to give a definitive ‘yes,”” Geise said. “That’s not the greater weight of the evidence. That’s a lack [of it].”
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Ellis family is represented by The Ferraro Law Firm’s Allan Kaiser.
R.J. Reynolds is represented by Jones Day’s Steven Geise.
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