BY DAVID SIEGEL
Florida juries decided seven separate tobacco lawsuits in the first two months of 2014, with four of the verdicts favoring tobacco companies and three in favor of former smokers and their families.
The trials were all part of the thousands of Engle progeny cases working their way through Florida’s courts. After the “Engle” class action resulted in a historic $145 billion verdict for 700,000 smokers and their families, the Florida Supreme Court decertified the class and ruled each case must be tried separately. The majority of subsequent individual trials have resulted in verdicts in favor of plaintiffs, but a recent string of victories for the tobacco companies could suggest a changing trend.
The first trial of the year began in Miami, Florida. Antonio Cuculino, represented by attorney Jeffrey Sloman of The Ferraro Law Firm, was awarded $5 million in January, after jurors found that years of smoking Marlboro cigarettes caused coronary artery disease. However the jury also found Cuculino, 69, to be 60% responsible for his own medical problems and reduced the verdict amount from $12.5 million. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco and Philip Morris USA Inc. were both defendants in the case, but the jury only found Philip Morris liable.
The next trial took place in Broward County, where Ft. Lauderdale jurors awarded the children of deceased smoker Georgia Cheeley $5 million, including punitive damages. Willie Cheeley and Iola Cheeley, represented by attorney Alex Alvarez, claimed R.J. Reynolds was responsible for their mother’s lung cancer. Despite the jury finding Georgia Cheeley 50% responsible for her health problems, the amount of actual damages awarded was not reduced due to the jury also finding in favor of the plaintiffs on a civil conspiracy claim against R.J. Reynolds. Florida law considers that an intentional tort and does not allow for reduction of damages in those circumstances.
The next trial resulted in the first defense verdict of the year, after another Miami jury found both R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris not liable for deceased plaintiff Augustin Gonzalez’s death from cancer. The defendants successfully argued the cancer which eventually spread to Gonzalez’s brain and killed him was cancer of the lymph nodes and not the lungs, and could not have been caused by tobacco products. William Geraghty and Frank Cruz-Alvarez of Shook Hardy Bacon represented Philip Morris, and Harold Gordon of Jones Day represented R.J. Reynolds.
R.J. Reynolds then prevailed in Miami again. Last month jurors found the tobacco company not liable for the death of Charlene Wendel. The only defendant in the case, R.J. Reynolds was represented by Ursula Henninger and Frank Bayuk of King & Spalding, and they convinced the jury that Wendel was not addicted to nicotine and chose to smoke cigarettes with full knowledge of the associated health risks. The fact Wendel did not begin smoking cigarettes manufactured by R.J. Reynolds until she was 30 years old played a central role in the defense’s arguments.
Plaintiffs then notched another victory in Orlando, where the first Engle case to go to trial in Orange County resulted in a verdict of over $5 million for John Goveia, whose wife Mary Goveia died of lung disease after smoking cigarettes for over 25 years. Both Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds were defendants in the case, and the jury awarded the plaintiff $850,000 in compensatory damages and $4.5 million in punitive damages. Keith Mitnik of Morgan & Morgan represented John Goveia.
Tobacco companies closed out February with two more victories. Last month a Broward County jury found in favor of R.J. Reynolds in a case brought by the family of deceased smoker George Banks. Attorney Jeffrey Furr of King & Spalding argued to the jury that Banks’ health problems were caused by his years of heavy alcohol use and could not be definitively linked to smoking. R.J. Reynolds was the only defendant in the case. One day later, jurors in Tallahasse found in favor of both R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris in a case brought by the family of Sonny Ellis, who died of lung cancer after years of smoking. Defense attorneys made a similar argument as in the Banks case, claiming Ellis was not addicted to nicotine and his cancer could not be directly linked to tobacco use. R.J. Reynolds was again represented by King & Spalding, along with Christopher Kreiner of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice.
At least five more Engle trials are currently underway or set to begin over the next few weeks in Florida courtrooms. After four separate victories for the tobacco companies, plaintiffs and their attorneys will be eager to see if the streak continues. Courtroom View Network, which has recorded almost every Engle tobacco trial to date, will be webcasting and recording each of these cases gavel-to-gavel.