Hargroves v. R.J. Reynolds (Tampa, Florida)
Jones Day slam-dunked the plaintiff today with a quick win in the Hargroves v. RJR engle-progeny tobacco trial. Today’s verdict was the 44th Engle verdict. Although the defense has frequently succeeded in limiting the damages awarded in Engle trials, today’s win was only the 14th complete victory for the Tobacco companies, as compared to 30 wins for the Engle plaintiffs.
Debra Hargroves was born in 1954, and began to smoke at age 9, in 3rd or 4th grade. She developed lung cancer at age 49, and died from it a year later, in June 2005.
In his closing argument, plaintiff attorney Howard Acosta told the jury, “What you’re going to hear probably from the defense is offense…What they do is they come in and they are going to talk all about Deborah Hargroves, and her ‘choice’. But you have to consider that she was nine years old…when she started to smoke, and medical records indicate that she smoked a pack a day since then.”
The tobacco companies had a choice, too, said Mr. Acosta. In 1953 they could have shared with the public what they knew about the dangers of smoking. Instead, said Mr. Acosta, they made the wrong choice. They continued to assert that cigarettes caused cancer for almost sixty more years, and they did it so they could make more money at the expense of people who smoked, according to Mr. Acosta.
For R.J. Reynolds, Stephanie Parker (Jones Day) said, “Our society, fully aware of all these health risks Mr. Acosta has been talking about, our society has decided that nevertheless, people are aware of the health risks of smoking, and cigarettes should be a legal product.”
Deborah Hargroves knew the risk the whole time, said Ms. Parker. Her husband had testified that for the whole time he knew her, Ms. Hargroves knew that cigarettes were bad for her health, bad for the environment, and bad for everything. She knew that smoking could cause lung cancer, and there was no question that she knew that smoking was bad for her health. “There’s just no dispute in this case,” said Ms. Parker, “that Mrs. Hargroves — the only person this case is about! — Mrs. Hargroves knew the whole time that smoking was bad for her, and could cause death.”
Said Ms. Parker, “Mr. Acosta acts like because Mrs. Hargroves tried her first cigarette at age 9, that that was the end of it…that she became an addict and that set the rest of her life…That’s just not right.” According to Ms. Parker, Ms. Hargrove knew the dangers back from the start, and didn’t become a regular smoker until later than age 9, perhaps age 13. And by the time Mrs. Hargroves was 13 years old, it was illegal to sell cigarettes to minors, and every pack of cigarettes came with a warning. “You’ve got to ask yourself,” said Ms. Parker, “How is Reynolds responsible for that?”
In rebuttal, Mr. Acosta listed the many choices that the cigarette companies made that encouraged their customers to smoke, and the things that Ms. Hargroves did not know when she made her choices, but that the cigarette companies did know. “You know,” said Mr. Acosta, “when a cigarette company tells you some things, they have an obligation to tell you the whole truth…There’s a little grain of truth in a lot of what they had to say, but they didn’t say the whole truth. The reason for that is because they needed to deceive people…as long as they could.”
The jury found that neither a negligent nor defective cigarette design was a legal cause of Deborah Hargrove’s death.
Ms. Parker had prior Engle wins in Gelep v. Philip Morris (2009) and Rohr v. RJR (2010)
Mr. Acosta had a prior Engle win in Douglas v. Philip Morris (2010)