Trial Begins Against RJR Over Death of Woman Who Never Smoked Its Cigarettes

Posted by Arlin Crisco on Jul 17, 2019 9:19:00 AM


Stock image. 

Miami, FL— Attorneys Monday argued over whether R.J. Reynolds is responsible for the death of a woman who never smoked the company’s cigarettes, as trial opened against the tobacco giant. Ruiz v. R.J. Reynolds, 08-112-CA-11.

Ofelia Ruiz died in 2000, following decades of smoking and a lung cancer diagnosis in the late 1990s. Ruiz, who was born in Cuba in 1930 and began smoking soon after she immigrated to the United States in 1969, never smoked Reynolds’ cigarettes. However, her family claims Reynolds is responsible for her cancer because of its involvement in a decades-long conspiracy to hide the dangers of smoking. 

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During Monday’s openings, Parafinczuk Wolf Susen’s Austin Carr walked jurors through documents he said showed Reynolds was instrumental in a campaign designed to cast doubt on the dangers of smoking through much of the 20th century. 

Carr said the conspiracy’s efforts took many forms, including public relations initiatives and appearances on popular television shows where spokespeople undercut evidence of smoking’s risks. And he said that conspiracy ultimately led to Ruiz's fatal cancer. 

“They knew… that all a smoker needs to do is have some doubt about whether or not they're disease-causing [and] doubt about whether or not they’re addictive,” Carr said. “Put that idea in their head and they won’t want to quit.”

The case is among 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 case is rare in the decade-long stream of Engle progeny trials; since Ruiz did not smoke Reynolds-brand cigarettes, the company can only be found liable for its part in the conspiracy.

During Monday’s openings, King & Spalding’s Ursula Henninger, representing Reynolds, told jurors there was nothing connecting 20th century tobacco messaging to Ruiz’s smoking decisions. “There’s not going to be a witness in this case that will ever tell you that Mrs. Ruiz saw, read, or heard, any [tobacco industry] statements,” Henninger said, noting conspiracy-related messaging was only communicated in English. Meanwhile, Henninger said, Ruiz did not speak or read the language. “You’re going to have to decide how those [statements] could have impacted a woman who didn’t understand the English language.”

Closings in the case are expected Friday.  

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Related Information

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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Topics: tobacco, Engle Progeny, Florida, Ruiz v. R.J. Reynolds