Last month, jurors handed down a $3 million verdict against R.J. Reynolds for the role it played in the death of a Florida man who had quit smoking 11 years before developing lung cancer.
Johnny Burgess, who passed away from lung cancer at the age of 59, began smoking as a teenager and continued the addiction for more than 30 years. He finally stopped smoking in 1982. However, in 1993 he was diagnosed with lung cancer and died in the same year.
The jury deliberated for over six hours before finding nicotine addiction and Reynolds’ concealment of the dangers of smoking were the main factors leading to Burgess’ death. The jurors apportioned 80% of the responsibility to Reynolds and the other 20% to Burgess. However, Reynolds was also found liable on fraud and conspiracy claims. This means that the $3 million compensatory award to Burgess’ widow will likely not be reduced.
During the closing arguments, counsel for Burgess’ widow, Jacqueline, requested $10 million in compensatory damages, as well as punitive damages. The jury rejected any claim for a punitive award.
The role of addiction in Burgess’s cancer served as a key issue argued during trial. The defense maintained that Burgess was a smoker by choice and was not addicted to nicotine. During closing arguments, counsel for Reynolds contended evidence that Burgess quit smoking during his first effort to stop and showed no lingering withdrawal effects afterward provide that he was not an addict. His widow’s attorney, though, argued that Burgess’ smoking behavior, including smoking 1 to 2 packs of cigarettes per day for over 30 years was proof that he was addicted to nicotine. He also noted that Burgess had made several attempts to quit smoking and suffered symptoms of withdrawal each time.
Engle Progeny Lawsuits
The R.J. Reynolds lawsuit is one of thousands included in Florida’s “Engle progeny lawsuits” against numerous tobacco companies. They stem from a 2006 decision, Engle v. Liggett Group, Inc., handed down by the Florida Supreme Court. The decision began as a class-action tobacco suit filed in 1994. Although the Court ruled that all Engle progeny cases must be tried individually, it held that plaintiffs could rely on certain jury findings in the original case. For example, in the original case, it was determined that tobacco companies had placed a dangerous, addictive product on the market and had conspired to hide the dangers of smoking. To be considered for entitlement to damages, plaintiffs must prove that the smoker suffered from nicotine addiction that caused a smoking related disease, such as lung cancer.
There were additional progeny verdicts handed down this year, including a $20 million award for pain and suffering handed to the widower of a deceased smoker in June. Another verdict in June awarded $500,000 in punitive damages to a widow who lost her husband in 1992.