Split Decision: Philip Morris Hit for $1.5M, but RJR Cleared in Trial Over Fatal Cancer

Posted by Meghan Gourley on Jul 21, 2016 12:20:19 AM

Jonathan Gdanski delivers his closing argument for his client, Joseph Varner, who claims tobacco industry deception caused his wife, Virginia's, nicotine addiction and fatal cancer. Jurors awarded Varner $1.5 million Tuesday. 

Fort Lauderdale, FL—A Florida jury Tuesday found nicotine addiction and Philip Morris cigarettes caused a 40-year smoker's fatal cancer and awarded her widower $1.5 million in compensatory damages. But, it rejected any punitive payout and cleared R.J. Reynolds of liability. Varner v. R.J. Reynolds. 

Virginia Varner, 54, died in 1995 after being diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Her husband, Joseph, claims tobacco industry concealment of smoking's dangers caused his wife's nicotine addiction and ultimately her smoking-related illness.

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"This case is about what cigarettes do to people—the harm they cause, the addiction they cause," Schlesinger Law Offices P.A.’s Scott Schlesinger, Joseph Varner's attorney, told jurors in Monday's closings. "The mothers, brothers, aunties, uncles, children, grandparents who are left behind to grieve and suffer from what is very much not a peaceful end to an existence.... Is this the price for pleasure? You will see there is no socially redeeming benefit to cigarettes in this country. It's a business, and that's all it is."

Tuesday's verdict found Philip Morris liable, but found no causal link between Varner's illness and R.J. Reynolds' Winston-brand cigarettes, which Varner allegedly smoked for about two years in the 50s.

Varner reportedly smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for 40 years until her cancer diagnosis in 1994.

Varner's case stems from Engle v. Liggett Group, a 1994 class action lawsuit involving Florida smokers and the nation's tobacco companies. The jury in that case found that the tobacco companies knowingly produced dangerous, addictive cigarettes and hid those dangers from the public. The Florida Supreme Court decertified the class on appeal, but its decision allows individual plaintiffs, like Varner, to rely on the jury's conclusions in the original trial if they can prove the smokers at the center of their cases suffered from nicotine addiction that caused a smoking-related disease.

Although the jury found Varner suffered from addiction that caused her cancer and COPD, it rejected the contention she was influenced by advertising and statements made by tobacco companies that smoking filtered cigarettes was safer, claims Schlesinger called the "illusion of filtration" in Monday's closings.

By contrast, Shook, Hardy & Bacon attorney William Geraghty, representing Philip Morris, reminded jurors in his closing that 60 million Americans have quit smoking, many "cold turkey," without assistance, but there was no testimony Virginia Varner ever tried to quit until just before her death. "She wasn't some hopeless addict who lost her free will," Geraghty said. "She was hardworking, intelligent, capable. Her husband told you that. She received many warnings over the years, and she smoked in the face of those warnings and she had every right to make that choice. It was her informed decision to smoke for many years."  

The jury found Virginia Varner 75% responsible and Philip Morris 25% liable. Judge John Murphy will likely reduce the $1.5 million award proportionately.

Related Information

Schlesinger Law Offices, P.A.’s Scott Schlesinger, Jonathan Gdanski, Steven Hammer, and Brittany Chambers represent Joseph Varner.

King & Spalding’s Jason Keehfus and Rebecca Ojeda represent R.J. Reynolds.

Shook Hardy’s William Geraghty represents Philip Morris.

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Topics: Negligence, Products Liability, tobacco, Engle Progeny, Florida, Varner v. R.J. Reynolds