Julie Reese v. R.J. Reynolds (Miami, Florida)
Julie Reese had her first cigarette in 1939 at age 10, and was a pack-a-day smoker of Camel and Kool cigarettes by the time she was 16. In 1994 she was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer and COPD.
After showing the jury television commercials and print advertisements from the period when Ms. Reese started smoking and switched brands, plaintiff attorney Jeffrey Sloman of the Ferraro firm said, “I agree, if somebody, with all the information out today and all the public service announcements, everything that’s out today — somebody who starts smoking now, really, would have a lot of gall to come in and blame the tobacco companies. But this was a different world then. And when Julie Reese started to smoke, [pro-tobacco messaging] was commonplace.“
“What’s unbelievable,” said Mr. Sloman, “At this time, R.J. Reynolds and the other tobacco companies know in their internal documents that smoking causes cancer. They know. You heard Dr. Proctor pin the date to about 1955. They know, and they’re putting commercials out about the fun of smoking, reassuring the public that everything’s all right, creating controversy, instilling doubt. That’s what makes this case so incredibly outrageous.“
Mr. Sloman described how Julie Reese visited a doctor in 1967 who told her that smoking was dangerous. But then, said Mr. Sloman, Ms. Reese sees an ad like the one he then displayed [reproduced below] claiming that a particular brand was reliably lower in tar, according to the US government.
“Now you’re an addicted smoker,” said Mr. Sloman, “and you see something like that and you’re faced with a choice — Hey, my doctor told me to quit, but wait a minute. This is lower in tar than the best-selling filter king. Maybe I’ll just stay smoking. And Julie’s testimony was that the longer she smoked, the more addicted she got…So if she had any chance to quit smoking, it would have been earlier on…when if the tobacco companies had been straight and said, you know, we’re selling an addictive product, we agree with the medical authorities that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer…but they did just the opposite. So they give an addicted smoker a psychological crutch to continue smoking.“
For R.J. Reynolds, Carlton Fields’ Ben Reid focused on causation, urging the jury not to find that addiction caused Ms. Reese to smoke, or that RJR’s concealment of information caused Ms. Reese to smoke, or that that smoking caused Ms. Reese throat cancer or COPD.
According to Mr. Reid, Mrs. Reese smoked by choice, not due to addiction. Her COPD might have resulted from asthma, and her laryngeal cancer from alcohol use. Finally, RJRs concealment could not have had an impact on Ms. Reese’s decisions because she had actual knowledge of the risks that RJR concealed. Therefore, said Mr. Reid, the plaintiffs could not cross the “bridge of causation” that connected Ms. Reese’s claims and the recovery she sought.
The jury found that Ms. Reese was addicted to cigarettes; that her addiction was the legal cause of her throat cancer and COPD; that the statute of limitations did not bar a claim for either of the two injuries; and that RJR was liable on all four theories of recovery: negligence, products liability, concealment, and agreement to conceal.
However, the jury assigned 70% of the fault to Ms. Reese, and found that punitive damages were not warranted, which significantly limited RJR’s liability. The jury found that Ms. Reese had suffered past harm of approximately $3M, and would suffer future harm of almost $600K, for a total damage award of just under $3.6M, of which RJR would be liable for approximately $1M (30%).
It was a strong start for Mr. Sloman, trying his first Engle case. Mr. Reid was previously seen in two Engle cases webcast by CVN, supporting Jones Day in Buonomo v. RJR and as lead defense counsel Koballa v. RJR. [Coincidentally, or not, the Koballa jury also assigned 30% fault to RJR.]