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PENSACOLA, Fla. — (Mealey’s) A Florida state court jury returned a defense verdict May 21 in a suit alleging that the death of a former smoker from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), coronary artery disease and peripheral vascular disease was caused by his years of smoking (Ethel Gray, et al. v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., et al., No. 2013 CA 002813. Fla. Dist., 1st Dist., Escambia Co.).
A jury sitting in the Florida First District Court for Escambia County found that Willie Gray was not addicted to cigarettes. Gray’s wife, Ethel Gray, alleged that her husband, who started smoking hand-rolled cigarettes at age 15 in 1951, began smoking Winston brand cigarettes, manufactured by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., in the 1960s and continued to smoke up to a pack and a half daily until 1993, when he quit.
The suit is part of the Engle class action, which 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.
Reynolds contended that Gray’s cigarette of choice was “roll your own” cigarettes containing Prince Albert tobacco and that he did not start or continue smoking because of advertisements by the tobacco industry.
In his closing statement, Richard Diaz of the Law Office of Richard Diaz in Miami told the jury that Gray’s behavior is proof of his addiction.
“He’d wake up in the middle of the night and smoke, really a key indicator of addiction,” Diaz said. “Ethel would buy him a carton a week, but when he ran out, if he did before the next Friday, he’d bum them from others or buy his own additional packs. On the weekly family purchase list, cigarettes was on the top, so that was a priority for him.”
(Watch a video excerpt of Diaz’s closing statement.)
Gray attempted to quit numerous times, Diaz said, but was unable to do so until 1993 when his doctor told him he should.
“So when they tell you that he didn’t make an effort to quit, that’s not true,” Diaz said. “There’s only one witness in this case who knows whether he did and that’s Ethel, and she told you. He tried chewing tobacco and it just didn’t work.”
In his closing statement, Jeffrey L. Furr of King & Spalding in Charlotte, N.C., representing Reynolds, told the jury that Gray smoked because he enjoyed it.
“We know that Mr. Gray did not want to quit smoking in the 50s, 60s, 70s or 80s,” Furr said. “We know that he did not try to quit smoking in the 50s, 60s, 70s or 80s. And Dr. [David] Burns, their expert that they paid to testify in this case, told you that he quit the first time he made any effort to quit, in 1993, and never smoked again.”
(Watch a video excerpt of Furr’s closing statement.)
“No doctor ever diagnosed Mr. Gray as addicted when he was smoking cigarettes,” Furr said. “The first time this diagnosis of addiction was ever made was by Dr. Burns for purposes of this lawsuit.”
Judge Michael Jones presided over the 11-day trial.
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