A vivid analogy can be a powerful way for a jury to connect with an argument. In the punitive phase of a 2019 trial against the nation’s two biggest tobacco companies for the death of a Florida smoker, Jonathan Gdanski outlines a hypothetical teacher-student discussion to drive home the point of civil punishment, and helps deliver an 8-figure verdict in the case.
Rita Mahfuz, a two-pack-a-day smoker for more than three decades, died seven years after cancer forced doctors to remove her right lung. Her husband claims a conspiracy by R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris to hide the dangers of cigarettes ultimately killed his wife.
In closings of the trial's punitive phase, Gdanski, of Schlesinger Law Offices P.A., compared determining civil punishment at trial to a teacher considering how to discipline a child.
“So, the school teacher sits down with the child,” Gdanski says, setting the stage. “First, they talk about what they did wrong,” adding, “What this industry did wrong was indiscriminately addict children to a product that was designed to kill half the users, when used as intended.”
The teacher-student analogy is one that every juror can identify with and it provides a vivid anchor on which Gdanski makes his argument regarding each element relevant to determining punitives.
For example, in highlighting his argument on the underlying cause of tobacco industry conduct, Gdanski asks the jurors to imagine a teacher asking why a student broke a rule. “‘Why did you do that?’ You’ll ask the child,” Gdanski explains. “In this case, the answer to they why is one word: money, right? They were greedy.”
Gdanski continues: “You have a chance today to punish them and speak to them in the only term that they understand: money.”
Gdanski sticks with the teacher-student analogy in arguing that harsh punitives in the case are particularly appropriate, comparing the tobacco companies to a student who repeatedly refuses to admit wrongdoing.
“At the very end of the discussion of ‘What did you do?’ and ‘Why did you do it?’ you say to them, ‘Okay, do you understand what you did was wrong?’” Gdanski says.
“Imagine the child was like ‘No! I did nothing wrong, ever!’” Gdanski shouts, slamming his palm on the lectern.
“Why are [the defendants] so steadfast in their continual refusals to recognize they did anything wrong?” Gdanski asks. “A powerful industry depends on the perpetuation of this epidemic.”
Jurors ultimately handed down a $15 million punitive verdict against Philip Morris and a $10 million punitive verdict against R.J. Reynolds, pushing the total verdict in the case to $37 million.
Email Arlin Crisco at email@example.com.
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