New Port Richey, FL—Attorneys Thursday battled over whether a Florida woman’s fatal lung cancer was caused by a tobacco industry conspiracy to hide the dangers of smoking, or the woman’s own decisions, as trial began against R.J. Reynolds. Kelley v. R.J. Reynolds, 2017CA002490.
Helen Kelley died on Christmas Day 1997 after 40 years of smoking about a pack-and-a-half of cigarettes a day, largely favoring R.J. Reynolds’ Pall Mall brand. Her husband, Dan Kelley, claims she died from lung cancer that metastasized to her brain caused by an cigarette addiction that began when she was a teenager.
During Thursday’s opening statements, Dan Kelley’s attorney, Alley Clark & Greiwe’s James Clark, told jurors Reynolds played a key role in a sweeping conspiracy to hide the dangers of smoking, while knowingly addicting smokers like Helen Kelley throughout much of the 20th century.
Clark walked jurors through documents he said showed a scheme to market cigarettes to teenagers while undermining scientific evidence of cigarettes’ risk, sowing doubt in smokers’ minds. “People that smoked and were addicted didn’t want to believe,” Clark said. “And the tobacco industry helped them not to believe, to their own detriment, disease, and death.”
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.
Reynolds argues Helen Kelley knew the dangers of cigarettes but chose to continue smoking. During Thursday’s openings, Jones Day’s Dennis Murphy, representing Reynolds, told jurors Dan Kelley had quit smoking by the early 1970s, after hearing news of smoking’s dangers. By contrast, Murphy told jurors, Helen Kelley repeatedly refused to make a concerted effort to quit smoking, despite pleas from her family to stop.
“Mrs. Kelley could have quit--either when Mr. Kelley quit, or even sometime thereafter,” Murphy said. “If, instead of choosing to continue to smoke, she chose to quit, Mrs. Kelley could have avoided any health risks of continued smoking.”
Trial is expected to last through next week.
Dan Kelley is represented by Alley Clark & Greiwe’s James Clark.
R.J. Reynolds is represented by Jones Day’s Dennis Murphy.