Citizens for Clean Air and Clean Lungs

Florida Jury Holds RJR Accountable


A bay area retiree wins more than $200,000 but no punitive damages in the death of his spouse, in what he calls a "canoe versus a battleship" case.

TAMPA -- Temple Terrace retiree Robert R. Jones won his one- man crusade against big tobacco Thursday when a jury decided that the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. was responsible for the death of his wife, Suzanne M. Jones, who died of cancer after smoking cigarettes for 43 years.

In what is believed to be the first smoker's lawsuit tried in the Tampa Bay area, jurors heard testimony for nearly six weeks, then deliberated a day and half before returning two verdicts against R.J. Reynolds and awarding Jones compensatory damages totaling $200,028.57.

The five-man, one-woman jury held that negligence on the part of R.J. Reynolds and a defective cigarette design by the Winston- Salem, N.C., company both contributed to Mrs. Jones' death.

The jury said, however, that R.J. Reynolds was not guilty of a conspiracy to defraud Mrs. Jones, and determined that awarding punitive damages, which might run into the millions of dollars, was unwarranted.

Robert Jones had opted out of a class action lawsuit that led to a $145-billion punitive damages award by a Miami jury against five tobacco companies in July. After Thursday's verdict, he said the case was not about money, but truth.

"I was never under any illusion that I would come out of this with a dime," he said. "I just wanted to create a situation where the tobacco companies would have to tell the truth. "If the truth was disseminated to the American public, it wouldn't be a question of banning cigarettes. If you put the truth out there, people will quit on their own."

A former Air Force fighter pilot and retired trust officer for Barnett Bank, Jones, 70, quit smoking himself, but not until after he watched cancer ravage his wife's lungs, then spread to her colon. Jones now suffers from emphysema. He lugged an oxygen tank into the courtroom for shortness of breath.

His lawsuit was filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court on July 7, 1997, two years after the death of his wife, a 62-year-old homemaker and mother of one son. The suit contended Mrs. Jones was addicted to nicotine and that her decades-long smoking habit caused the cancer leading to her death.

Mrs. Jones began smoking in 1952 and smoked more than a pack a day of Pall Mall, Winston, Vantage or Carlton cigarettes. She smoked even after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer -- evidence, her husband believes, that she was addicted to nicotine.

A particularly defining moment for Jones occurred Wednesday, after the jury had deliberated nearly four hours. One of the jurors asked Judge Ralph Steinberg if jurors could take a recess because she needed a cigarette break.

Jones shook his head and laughed. "That's what I mean about the power of addiction," he said.

R.J. Reynolds' team of attorneys argued that Mrs. Jones was fully aware of the risks associated with smoking but lit up during her entire adult life anyway. The company, the second-largest manufacturer of cigarettes in the nation, disputed that smoking caused Mrs. Jones' cancer, contending instead that colon cancer, not lung cancer, killed her.

Paul Crist, one of R.J. Reynolds' attorneys, said the company planned to appeal Thursday's verdicts. He added that he was gratified that jurors found no conspiracy and allowed no punitive damages.

Before Thursday, Crist had tried three other smokers' cases for R.J. Reynolds and prevailed in all three.

The Hillsborough jury awarded $141,028.57 for Mrs. Jones' medical costs and burial expenses and $59,000 for Robert Jones' loss of his wife's companionship.

"We were obviously disappointed in those two verdicts," said Crist. "Though it is clear to me that even with those verdicts, the damages are so low as to discourage people from going to court like this."

Indeed, Jones' attorney, Howard Acosta of St. Petersburg, said he had spent five years and about $1-million preparing for this case. He has about 20 other cases involving elderly smokers yet to be tried in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Orange counties, and said he must now re-evaluate the time and money expended on Jones' case to determine how he will handle the remaining smokers' suits.

"I think this case was not about making anybody rich," said Acosta. "We set out to make these companies accountable. "This shows they can be beat."

Acosta said the verdict concerning R.J. Reynolds' production of a defective product demonstrated that the company misled consumers about the safety of Winston cigarettes. "They told people the filter would filter out nicotine, but the nicotine was actually boosted," said Acosta. "That part was never told."

The jury's refusal to allow punitive damages, Crist said, was "telling evidence" that a jury that socked R.J. Reynolds and four other tobacco companies with $145-billion in punitive damages in July was an aberration.

The Miami award involved the first class action case by smokers to go to trial in the United States. Jurors took just 41/2 hours to agree that tobacco's big five companies should pay $145-billion for harming 700,000 smokers in Florida. The award, the largest in American history, is being appealed.

Jones declined to participate in the class action suit in Miami, electing to pursue his wife's wrongful death case on his own.

Thursday, he admitted he was surprised that Acosta, a sole proprietor, could beat R.J. Reynolds' team of six lawyers and a large support staff, which included audio and video professionals stationed in the courtroom to present court exhibits.

"They have tremendous resources," said Jones. "It was like a canoe versus a battleship. "But they didn't know we had a torpedo aboard -- Howard Acosta."

Source: St. Petersburg Times, Friday, 10/13/00


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