Tampa, FL— Trial opened Monday against R.J. Reynolds over the bladder cancer a Florida man developed after decades of smoking, with attorneys sparring over what role, if any, tobacco industry messaging played in leading to the disease. Rutkowski v. R.J. Reynolds, 2007-CA-014667.
Joseph Rutkowski began smoking as a teenager in the 1950s and was a multipack-a-day smoker until quitting in 1986. Seven years later, however, doctors diagnosed Rutkowski with bladder cancer.
Rutkowski claims cigarette maker R.J. Reynolds is responsible for his cancer by participating in an industry-wide conspiracy to hide the dangers of smoking through much of the latter half of the 20th century.
During Monday’s openings, Rutkowski’s attorney, Searcy Denney’s James Gustafson, walked jurors through evidence he said showed Reynolds and others engaged in multiple initiatives to cast doubt on the growing medical evidence of tobacco’s dangers.
Gustafson said the initiatives, which included false claims regarding the relative safety of filtered cigarettes and the funding of associations aimed at countering evidence of smoking’s risks, were designed to keep those like Rutkowski using a product the industry knew was deadly.
“This was a conspiracy that had been going on for decades. It wasn’t just a few executives that held on to some wrong-headed beliefs,” Gustafson said. “It was a business plan.”
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, ruling individual plaintiffs could recover only if they proved the smoker at the heart of each case was addicted to cigarettes that caused a disease.
But Reynolds contends Rutkowski was not swayed by tobacco industry messaging or nicotine addiction when making his smoking decisions.
During Monday’s openings, Jones Day’s John Walker told jurors evidence would show Rutkowski ignored warnings about smoking for years. And Walker said Rutkowski chose cigarettes based on his own preferences for decades, before deciding to quit as a Christmas gift to his wife and in order to save money.
“That is not the story of a man whose smoking choices were dictated by nicotine, by advertising, or by some talking head on TV for a tobacco company,” Walker said. “That’s the story of a man who, just as he told his wife, did what he wanted to do.”
Trial is expected to run into next week.
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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