BRADENTON, Fla. -- Jurors in a Florida circuit court on Oct. 6 capped a retrial in an Engle progeny case with a defense verdict, finding that the plaintiff was not addicted to smoking the defendant tobacco companies' cigarettes; the verdict extends a recent string of victories for the defendants (Jimmie P. Willis v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., et al., No. 2008CA009589, Fla. Cir., 12th Jud. Cir., Manatee Co.).
Jimmie Willis smoked for more than 30 years and allegedly developed cancer of the larynx as a result. A member of the former class in the Engle v. Liggett Group, Inc. (945 So.2d 1246 [Fla. Sup. 2006], cert denied, 128 S.Ct. 96  [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers / unenhanced version available from lexisONE Free Case Law]) class action, Willis sued R.J Reynolds Tobacco Co. (RJR) and Philip Morris USA Inc. as permitted by the Florida Supreme Court when it decertified the class and allowed class members to refile their claims individually, taking advantage of the general liability findings of the Engle jury against the tobacco industry.
Trial began April 16 in the Manatee County Circuit Court before Judge Edward Nicholas. Willis admitted to some liability but asserted that RJR and Philip Morris knowingly sold dangerous products and covered up the health risks of smoking for decades; the tobacco companies maintained that Willis knew of the dangers of smoking as far back as 1965, when the government issued its first tobacco warnings, but never made a serious effort to quit.
In an undocumented session on the second day of jury deliberations, and with the consent of counsel for both sides, Judge Nicholas met with the jurors to answer a lengthy question; RJR and Philip Morris later moved for a mistrial, citing what they said were Judge Nicholas' "improper ex-parte off-the-record communications with the jury" concerning the jury's difficulty in reaching a verdict. The following day, the judge declared a mistrial after the jury indicated that it was deadlocked.
The retrial commenced Sept. 17 and lasted more than three weeks. The jury of five women and two men deliberated five hours before finding that addiction to cigarettes was not a legal cause of Willis' laryngeal cancer and, therefore, neither defendant was liable for his injuries.
The verdict is just the sixth to go the tobacco companies' way out of the 25 Engle progeny cases that have been resolved since the trials began in February 2009, but it is the third in a row and the second in less than a week.
[Editor's Note: Full coverage will be in the October issue of Mealey's Litigation Report: Tobacco. In the meantime, the verdict sheet is available at www.mealeysonline.com or by calling the Customer Support Department at 1-800-833-9844. Document #04-101015-007V. For all of your legal news needs, please visit www.lexisnexis.com/mealeys.]
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