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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — (Mealey’s) A state court jury awarded $25 million in punitive damages April 21 to a man who alleged that his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) was caused by his 40 years of smoking cigarettes manufactured by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. (Thomas Ryan v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., et al., No. 2008-CV-022579, Fla. Cir., 17th Jud., Broward Co.).
The punitive damages award came four days after the same jury in Florida’s 17th Judicial Circuit Court for Broward County awarded Thomas Ryan $21.5 million in compensatory damages in his Engle progeny suit. The Engle class action was decertified after trial and a $145 billion verdict in 2006 by the Florida Supreme Court (Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., 945 So. 2d 1246 [Fla. 2006]) [enhanced opinion available to lexis.com subscribers]). The court allowed approximately 700,000 class members to pursue individual claims using findings of fact from the original Engle trial.
Ryan argued that he relied on statements and omissions by the tobacco industry on the health impact of cigarettes. Reynolds argued in response that Ryan was not addicted to nicotine and could have quit in time to avoid developing COPD.
The jury found April 17 that Ryan was addicted to nicotine and that his addiction was a legal cause of his condition. In addition, the jury found that Ryan reasonably relied to his detriment on misrepresentations and omissions by the tobacco industry on the health effects of smoking. The $21.5 million compensatory damages award consisted of $16.5 million for Ryan and $5 million for his wife, Bettye.
In his closing argument, Alex Alvarez of the Alvarez Law Firm in Miami, representing Ryan, told the jury that the tobacco industry targeted children, including Ryan, who began smoking at age 11. Citing industry documents, Alvarez said that tobacco companies were aware that nonsmokers do not begin to smoke to satisfy a physical craving, but for psychological reasons.
(Watch a video excerpt of Alvarez’ closing argument.)
“They know that. They know that, so they wanted to make smoking cool so that kids would do that. And then they get hooked. And then they die,” Alvarez said. Pointing to Ryan, Alvarez said, “They don’t care about him surviving. They care about their company surviving.”
In his closing, W. Ray Persons of King & Spaulding in Atlanta, representing Reynolds, told the jury that Ryan was aware of the addictive nature of nicotine in light of his family’s history of smoking-related diseases and did not rely on statements made by the tobacco industry about the health effects of smoking.
“What would a reasonable person rely on? His father’s diagnosed with COPD in 1983. Father says to his son, ‘My doctor says that my COPD was caused by smoking.’ Are you going to believe something that somebody says on television . . . or what’s happening before your very eyes?,” Persons asked.
“It’s the same thing with the advertising,” Persons said. “Are you going to believe what your parents are doing? Is that going to be an influence on you? Or something you see on a movie screen?”
(Watch a video excerpt of Persons’ closing argument.)
The jury returned its verdicts less than three weeks after a mistrial was declared in the case on April 2, just two hours after the Florida Supreme Court handed down two rulings on the standard of proof for fraudulent concealment claims against the tobacco industry. In the two rulings issued earlier that day, the state Supreme Court said that plaintiffs asserting claims of fraudulent concealment and conspiracy to conceal in Engle progeny cases need not prove detrimental reliance on misrepresentations made by the tobacco industry within the 12-year statute of repose period for fraud. Because the statute of repose for fraud is triggered by the last act or omission on the part of the defendant, the court said, it is not necessary for an Engle plaintiff to show detrimental reliance after May 5, 1982, 12 years before the filing of the original complaint in Engle (Elaine Hess, et al. v. Philip Morris USA Inc., No. SC12-2153 [enhanced opinion available to lexis.com subscribers]; Philip Morris USA Inc., et al. v. Tina Russo, et al., No. SC12-1401, Fla. Sup. [enhanced opinion]).
Judge John Murphy presided.
In addition to Alvarez, Ryan is represented by Gary Paige of Gordon and Doner in Stuart, Fla.
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