Fort Lauderdale, FL—Attorneys debated what drove a Florida woman to smoke up to two packs a day until cancer cost her a lung, as trial over her death began last week against the nation’s two largest tobacco companies. Mahfuz v. R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris, 2007-CV-036743.
Rita Mahfuz died in 1999, seven years after doctors diagnosed her with lung cancer and removed her right lung. Her family claims a sweeping conspiracy involving R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris to hide the dangers of smoking hooked Mahfuz to cigarettes and led to her death from complications related to cancer and respiratory disease.
As trial opened last week, the Mahfuz family’s attorney, Steven Hammer, of Schlesinger Law Offices P.A., told jurors Mahfuz was a regular smoker by the time she was a teenager and was one of millions of people targeted by messaging designed to undercut scientific evidence on the dangers of cigarettes.
Hammer walked jurors through industry documents he said showed companies falsely marketed light and filtered cigarettes as healthier options to more traditional brands. Mahfuz he said, believed the messaging. “Rita was just one of millions of people who were loyal smokers, loyal customers of tobacco companies, who bought into what they were saying,” Hammer said.
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.
But the defense argues Mahfuz chose to continue smoking despite knowing the dangers of cigarettes. During openings last week, King & Spalding’s Kathryn Lehman told jurors Mahfuz was aware of evidence concerning smoking’s risks for decades, and smoked despite warnings on packs and in the media. “Mrs. Mahfuz knew that information,” Lehman said. “And in light of that information, she still made the choice to smoke.”
Shook Hardy & Bacon’s Hildy Sastre, representing Philip Morris, agreed and said Mahfuz ultimately quit successfully without any assistance when her lung cancer surgery motivated her to quit. Sastre contrasted this with Mahfuz’s earlier, failed attempts in which Mahfuz allegedly tried various cessation aids, but never actually threw away her cigarettes. “No quit aid—gum, the patch, hypnosis, it doesn’t matter—is going to help somebody who is not serious and ready,” Sastre said. “She was capable of quitting as soon as she put her mind to it.”
Trial is expected to last into next week.
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Richard Mahfuz is represented by Schlesinger Law Offices P.A.’s Steven Hammer.
R.J. Reynolds is represented by King & Spalding’s Kathryn Lehman and Jeffrey Furr.
Philip Morris is represented by Shook Hardy & Bacon’s Hildy Sastre.
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