RJR Cleared, PM Assigned a Fraction of Fault for Smoker's Cancer & COPD, Likely Slashing $1.6M Verdict

Posted by Arlin Crisco on May 3, 2019 2:19:36 PM


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Fort Lauderdale, FL— A Florida state court jury Thursday handed down a $1.6 million-plus verdict for the respiratory disease and cancer it found a Florida woman suffered because of Philip Morris-brand cigarettes. However, the verdict apportioned the lion’s share of blame to the smoker herself, likely reducing the post-verdict award. Zingaro v. Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, 2007-CV-036438.

Thursday’s verdict found Karla Zingaro’s nicotine addiction and decades of smoking Philip Morris cigarettes caused the respiratory disease she developed in the early 1990s. However, jurors cleared R.J. Reynolds, whose brands Zingaro smoked for a fraction of her roughly 40-year cigarette history.

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Zingaro, now 64, tried her first cigarette at about 15 and smoked up to 2 packs a day across the next four-plus decades. She contends her respiratory disease, and the cancer she was first diagnosed with in 2014, were caused by nicotine addiction and a tobacco industry scheme to hide the dangers of cigarettes through much of the 20th century.

But jurors apportioned only 16% of responsibility to Philip Morris, assigning the remaining 84% of the blame to Zingaro herself. That, combined with the jury’s rejection of Zingaro’s fraud and conspiracy claims, and its refusal to award punitives, means the post verdict award will likely be slashed to about $262,055.

Zingaro’s attorney, Kelley/Uustal’s Todd Falzone, requested $20.2 million in compensatory damages, plus a finding that punitives were potentially warranted, during Wednesday’s closings.

The case is among thousands that stem from Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a 1994 Florida state court class-action lawsuit against the nation’s 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.

The trial, which opened April 3, stretched across a month. A key point of contention was what blame, if any, Zingaro bore for her smoking-related decisions.

During Wednesday’s closings, Falzone told jurors Zingaro started smoking as a child, swept up in a culture that glamourized cigarettes. Nicotine addiction and tobacco marketing designed to undercut the risks of cigarettes then drove her smoking, he said, until it was too late to avoid its impact.

“There’s no question that she contributed in a very small part to what happened to her,” Falzone said. “But the responsibility is theirs.”

Philip Morris countered that Zingaro knew the dangers of cigarettes and did not do enough to quit smoking earlier in her life. On Wednesday Shook Hardy’s Kenneth Reilly told jurors warnings appeared on every pack of cigarettes Zingaro smoked, while her mother developed smoking-related respiratory disease years before Zingaro herself did. “You’re not 15 forever,” Reilly said. “And you continue to smoke cigarettes with continuous warnings.”

King & Spalding’s Jason Keehfus, representing Reynolds, added that Zingaro had not smoked enough of his client’s cigarettes to cause her illnesses. During Wednesday’s closings, Keehfus said evidence showed Zingaro smoked, at most, 1 pack of Reynolds cigarettes a day for two years, which was far short of the pack-year history needed to increase her risk of cancer or respiratory disease.

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“When Mrs. Zingaro stopped smoking Reynolds brands in 1972, under her own experts’ testimony her risk of developing COPD and lung cancer was equal to that of someone who never took a single puff on a cigarette,” Keehfus said. “That’s not a substantial contribution [to her illnesses]. That’s no contribution.”

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Related information

Karla Zingaro is represented by Kelley/Uustal’s Todd Falzone and Eric Rosen.

Philip Morris is represented by Shook Hardy Bacon’s Kenneth Reilly and Kim Vaughan Lerner’s Robert Vaughan.

R.J. Reynolds is represented by King & Spalding’s Jason Keehfus.

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Topics: tobacco, Engle Progeny, Florida, Zingaro v. Philip Morris, et al.