Daytona Beach, FL—Trial opened Thursday against R.J. Reynolds over the death of a Florida health department worker who chain smoked for years. Coursey v. R.J. Reynolds, 2013-30656-CICI.
Rebecca Fredenhagen, 68, who died of cancer in 1992, was a chain smoker so addicted to nicotine she bought cigarettes by the carton and sometimes woke up in the middle of the night to smoke, her daughter Debra Coursey's attorney, Robert Foote, said during opening statements of trial against R.J. Reynolds.
"[Reynolds] knew that if people don’t smoke by the time they are 25, it is very unlikely that they will end up being a habituated smoker," Foote, of Foote, Mielke, Chavez, & O'Neil, said. "How do you get someone to smoke enough that they develop that habit? [Tobacco companies] got together and conspired to make sure that the public did not know what [Reynolds and other companies] knew about cigarettes, about filters, about nicotine, about what 'light' meant, about what 'ultra light' meant. And they kept all that secret until after Rebecca died."
Coursey claims Reynolds caused her mother's nicotine addiction and cancer by hiding the dangers of smoking for much of the 20th century.
Foote said Fredenhagen quit smoking only after a 1985 bout of Guillain-Barré syndrome left her temporarily paralyzed and unable to smoke. Fredenhagen died seven years later, after lung cancer metastasized to her liver and bones.
But Reynolds attorney Stephanie Parker, of Jones Day, noted Fredenhagen worked for 25 years with the Florida Department of Health, experience Parker contended, rendered Fredenhagen acutely aware of smoking's dangers.
"[Fredenhagen] worked for the very state agency whose job is to be responsible for telling the public about health issues, including the dangers of smoking," Parker said in her opening. "Mrs. Coursey is now coming to court, though, and claiming her mother was living in a bubble and did not know smoking was bad for her, and she says she herself did not know smoking was [dangerous] either, until her mother passed away."
Coursey's case was brought in connection with Engle v. Liggett Group, the1994 class action that involved Florida smokers who successfully sued U.S. tobacco companies for allegedly hiding the dangers of cigarettes from the public. The Florida Supreme Court affirmed the jury's findings but decertified the class. To prevail, plaintiffs must file their claims individually and prove the smokers at the centers of their cases suffered from nicotine addiction that caused a smoking-related disease.
Trial in the case is expected to last through next week.
Robert Foote, of Foote, Mielke, Chavez, & O'Neil, represents Debra Coursey.
Stephanie Parker, of Jones Day, represents R.J. Reynolds.