Miami, FL— Jurors Friday cleared R.J. Reynolds at trial over claims that its role in a decades-long tobacco industry conspiracy led to a Florida woman’s death. Ruiz v. R.J. Reynolds, 08-112-CA-11.
The state’s 11th Circuit Court jury, in Dade County, needed about two hours to find Ofelia Ruiz was not a member of a class of smokers potentially entitled to recover for nicotine addiction that caused a smoking-related disease.
Ruiz died in 2000, following decades of smoking and a lung cancer diagnosis in the late 1990s. Notably, however, Ruiz, who was born in Cuba and immigrated to the U.S. in 1969, never smoked Reynolds’ cigarettes. Her family claims Reynolds is responsible for her cancer because of its involvement in a decades-long conspiracy to hide the dangers of smoking.
The case is one of 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 conspired to hide 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 developing between May 5, 1990 and November 21, 1996.
The Ruiz case is unusual among Engle cases in that, because Ruiz never smoked Reynolds-brand cigarettes, the company faced trial only for its part in the claimed industry-wide conspiracy.
Much of the five-day trial focused on what role tobacco industry initiatives designed to conceal the dangers of cigarettes played in Ruiz’s smoking decisions. During Friday’s closings, Parafinczuk Wolf Susen’s Austin Carr walked jurors through evidence he said showed Reynolds’ participation in a vast scheme to undercut evidence of smoking’s risks and foment doubt on the issue. “If the smoker’s in doubt, the smoker has a psychological crutch, the smoker continues to smoke,” Carr said. “That’s all [the conspirators] need to continue with a conspiracy that only helps them sell more and more death and cigarettes.”
But the defense argued there was no proof of a connection between tobacco initiatives and Ruiz’s smoking choices. During Friday’s closings, King & Spalding’s Ursula Henninger told jurors the evidence on Ruiz and her attitudes toward smoking was “incredibly thin,” and there was nothing to suggest she was duped by tobacco messaging. “We don’t know what she knew; so there’s no evidence she doubted it. There’s no evidence she was confused,” Henninger said. “[There is] absolutely none.”
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The plaintiff is represented by Parafinczuk Wolf Susen’s Austin Carr.
The defense is represented by King & Spalding’s Ursula Henninger.
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