Miami, FL— Jurors cleared Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds of responsibility for the death of a Florida grocer who smoked the companies' cigarettes for years. Villanueva v. R.J. Reynolds, et al., 2007-CA-046361.
An 11th Circuit Court jury, in Dade County, deliberated roughly five hours across two days before rejecting the claim that nicotine addiction to either of the companies’ cigarettes legally caused Omar Villanueva’s lung cancer death.
Villanueva immigrated to the United States in 1970 when he was 37 and eventually opened a grocery store in Miami, which he ran for years. He died in 1994 after years of smoking Winston and Marlboro cigarettes manufactured by Reynolds and Philip Morris respectively.
His family contends the two companies are responsible for his death by hooking him to cigarettes and concealing the dangers of smoking. 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. It ruled individual Engle progeny plaintiffs can recover only if they prove the smoker at the heart of each case was addicted to cigarettes that caused a smoking-related illness.
Because Villanueva came to the U.S. as an adult and questions surrounded his smoking history in Cuba, where Reynolds and Philip Morris brands were not available, addiction and its relationship to the two companies' cigarettes served as key battle lines at trial.
During closings of the 8-day trial, the Villanueva family’s attorney, Austin Carr, of Parafinczuk Wolf, told jurors there was scant concrete evidence concerning Villanueva’s smoking in Cuba. By contrast, he said evidence showed Villanueva was so addicted to the defendants cigarettes in the U.S. that he failed in multiple quit attempts and continued to smoke even while he suffered from cancer.
“Cigarettes were a substantial contributing cause to Mr. Villanueva’s death,” Carr said. “The cigarettes smoked here in the United States for 23 years.”
However, the defense argued Villanueva had smoked for decades before coming to the United States and that any addiction was attributable to his smoking Cuban tobacco products. During his closing statement, Km Vaughan Lerner’s Robert Vaughan told jurors Villanueva’s own wife believed he became hooked to cigarettes while smoking for a quarter-century in Cuba.
“How can plaintiff reasonably ask you to conclude that anything that R.J. Reynolds, that Philip Morris, that any American company did caused him to smoke and become addicted when he arrived here as a 37-year-old man with a 25-year history and relationship with cigarettes in Cuba?”
And King & Spalding’s Philip Green, representing Reynolds, noted that Villanueva moved to the United States at a time when warnings concerning smoking were widespread, adding that every pack of Reynolds cigarettes Villanueva bought bore a health warning.
“It’s no secret that Mr. Villanueva made the decision to smoke. He made that decision in Cuba,” Green said. “And he made the decision to continue smoking when he moved to the United States as a 37-year-old man in 1970.”
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