Pensacola, FL— Jurors Monday cleared R.J. Reynolds of liability for the death of a long-time Florida smoker, in the retrial of a case that resulted in a $23.6 billion verdict five years ago. Robinson v. R.J. Reynolds,2008-CA-000098.
The Florida state court jury needed less than two hours to reject the claim that nicotine addiction caused Michael Johnson’s lung cancer death.
Johnson, 36, died in 1996 after more than 20 years of smoking. His widow, Cynthia Robinson, contended Reynolds’ role in a scheme to conceal the dangers of smoking hooked her husband to nicotine and ultimately led to fatal lung cancer.
Monday’s verdict was a far different result than the award that made headlines in 2014, when jurors slapped Reynolds with a $23.6 billion verdict, nearly all of that in punitives, after finding the company responsible for Johnson’s death.
That verdict was thrown out by the state’s First District Court of Appeal, which concluded plaintiff’s counsel made a variety of improper comments in closings.
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.
Parties battled over nearly every element of class membership during the nine-day trial, from the type of cancer that caused Johnson’s death, to the link between it and Johnson’s smoking.
During Monday’s closings, Robinson’s attorney, Howard Acosta, of the Law Offices of Howard Acosta, told jurors evidence proved Johnson suffered from lung cancer, while experts concluded he was addicted to cigarettes.
Willie Gary, of Gary, Williams, Parenti, Watson & Gary, agreed and urged jurors not to allow the defense to blame Johnson’s decisions for his cancer. “You’re going to hear the defendant talk about a choice, a choice, a choice,” Gary said. “But you know as well as I do that if you are addicted, a choice doesn’t matter.”
But the defense argued Johnson’s choices, and not addiction, were the root cause of any impact smoking had on Johnson’s health. During Monday’s closings, Jones Day’s Stephanie Parker told jurors Johnson never made a serious effort to quit smoking. “Mr. Johnson is 100 percent responsible for the decisions that he made," Parker said. “No one made those decisions in his life but him.”
And Reynolds attorney Jack Williams, of Jones Day, added that medical results on where Johnson’s cancer originated were inconclusive. “Where Michael Johnson’s [cancer] started was never determined. It was found in his lung,” Williams said, “but that’s the only place that it was looked for.”
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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