Trial Opens in Throat Cancer Survivor's Suit Against Tobacco Giant

Posted by Arlin Crisco on Jan 8, 2015 8:00:00 PM

Jose Vila’s attorney, Alan Kaiser, tells jurors in opening statements that decades of smoking, and not another cause, such as the human papillomavirus, led to Vila’s laryngeal cancer and his ultimate laryngectomy. Vila is suing Philip Morris, claiming the tobacco manufacturer’s concealment of smoking’s dangers caused his nicotine addiction and cancer. 

Miami—Jurors heard opening statements Thursday morning in a suit by a former smoker who claimed his addiction to cigarettes caused the cancer that cost him his larynx. Vila v. Philip Morris. 

Jose Vila, 60, is suing Philip Morris in the Engle progeny case, claiming the tobacco manufacturer's decades-long concealment of smoking's health hazards and the addictiveness of nicotine caused him to develop a heavy smoking habit that led to his laryngeal cancer. Vila, who says he began smoking when he was 15 and living in Spain, smoked for more than 24 years until he was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer in 1994. Two years later, after a recurrence of the cancer, physicians removed Vila's larynx. 

During opening statements, The Ferraro Law Firm's Alan Kaiser, representing Vila, argued that his client was the victim of a decades-long conspiracy by the tobacco industry to misrepresent the effects of smoking. Kaiser told jurors that the tobacco industry's "goal was to get these people started young as kids, get them addicted, so that they would become long-time users of their product, and they knew it could kill them."

However, Shook, Hardy & Bacon's Robert McCarter argued that there is no evidence that Vila was influenced by tobacco industry messaging regarding smoking. "Their own expert admits, none of what he talked about, he has no evidence that any of it was broadcast in Spain or reached Spain, where Mr. Vila was living," McCarter said. "There's no evidence that anything you're going to see when you watch that video (of testimony by plaintiff's tobacco expert Robert Proctor), reached Mr. Vila, much less had any impact on his decisions."

McCarter also argued that Vila was a smoker by choice rather than a nicotine addict. "Mr. Vila wanted to quit (smoking) after his cancer diagnosis, he was able to quit, and before that he had no desire to quit, and he never tried." McCarter said. 

As in similar Engle progeny cases, Vila's attorneys must prove Vila's cancer was caused by nicotine addiction. Vila is one of thousands of Engle progeny cases in Florida, which stem from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision decertifying Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a class-action tobacco suit originally filed in 1994. Although the state’s supreme court ruled Engle cases must be tried individually, it found plaintiffs could rely on certain jury findings in the original case, including the determination that tobacco companies had placed a dangerous, addictive product on the market and had conspired to hide the dangers of smoking. However, individual Engle progeny plaintiffs must prove a variety of elements to establish class membership, including nicotine addiction and a causal link between that addiction and certain, enumerated health problems. 

During opening statements, Kaiser attempted to blunt a potential defense against his client's claim, in arguing that medical evidence would establish that Vila's cancer was caused by smoking, rather than another potential cause, such as the human papillomavirus. "It is the opinion of (head and neck surgeon) Dr. (Jarrard) Goodwin that it was the extensive smoking history of Jose Vila that caused his laryngeal cancer," Kaiser told jurors. "He's going to say 'I'm fairly certain. And he's talking in the 90-percent range," Kaiser said.

Trial in the case is expected to last about three weeks. 

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Topics: Negligence, tobacco, Engle Progeny, Florida