Tampa, FL— Jurors last week handed down a $6 million verdict against R.J. Reynolds for the role it found the tobacco giant played in the respiratory disease-related death of a Florida woman. Wlasiuk v. R.J. Reynolds, 2008-CA-017048.
The 13th Circuit Court jury, in Hillsborough County, wrapped the 9-day trial by concluding nicotine addiction driven by years of smoking caused Eunice “Hope” Wlasiuk’s death from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Jurors also found Reynolds liable on fraud and conspiracy claims.
Wlasiuk began smoking as a teenager in 1957. She was diagnosed with COPD in the early 1990s, and ultimately died in 2002. Her family claims that Reynolds’ role in a tobacco industry-wide conspiracy to hide the dangers of smoking for much of the 20th century hooked Wlasiuk to cigarettes and caused her death.
The lawsuit is one of thousands of so-called Engle-progeny cases, claims spun from a 1990s class action by Florida smokers against the nation’s tobacco companies. After a trial court verdict in favor of the plaintiffs, the Florida Supreme Court decertified the class, ruling individual plaintiffs could recover only if they proved the smoker at the heart of each case was addicted to cigarettes that caused a disease such as COPD.
A key issue at trial turned on whether Wlasiuk’s smoking decisions were driven by nicotine addiction.
Reynolds contends Wlasiuk chose to smoke despite knowing the risks of cigarettes and did not do enough to quit smoking in time to avoid her respiratory disease. During her closing argument, Jones Day’s Joyce McKinniss told jurors that evidence showed Wlasiuk did not try to quit cigarettes until 40 years after she first began smoking, and well after her COPD diagnosis.
“Ms. Wlasiuk smoked cigarettes for years without wanting to quit or trying to quit,” McKinniss said. “Even though she knew smoking caused major health problems and deadly disease, she lived her life as a smoker.”
But Newlands & Clark’s Shane Newlands, representing the Wlasiuk family, countered that the fact Wlasiuk continued to smoke well after her COPD diagnosis, despite evidence of multiple quit attempts, showed how addicted she was to nicotine.
“That is not a person who is smoking because they love the taste,” Newlands said. “That is not someone who is smoking for relaxation. That is an addict.”
Email Arlin Crisco at email@example.com.
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