Florida jury finds tobacco companies to blame for lawyer's death

By Mark Powell | May 13, 2016

WEST PALM BEACH – RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Phillip Morris USA Inc. recently were found responsible in the death of a former Florida lawyer who died of lung cancer 15 years ago.

WEST PALM BEACH – RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Phillip Morris USA Inc. recently were found responsible in the death of a former Florida lawyer who died of lung cancer 15 years ago.

The 15th Judicial Circuit of Florida - Palm Beach County Court awarded the family of Thomas Purdo $33.5 million, as the jury placed 66 percent of the blame for the former lawyer’s death on RJ Reynolds and 12 percent on Phillip Morris. The remaining blame is placed on Purdo himself for his habit.

The plaintiff’s attorney, Gary Paige, stated that Purdo smoked three packs of cigarettes a day from the age of 13 until he quit at 36. He died in 1997. Paige claims that Purdo’s unhealthy habit stemmed from a lack of knowledge of the dangers of smoking, which large-scale tobacco companies hid from the public for years.

Purdo allegedly tried to quit smoking in the 1970s when he switched to Merit, Carlton & Now, believing it was a safer brand. This also turned out to be a lie spread by the tobacco industry as they fought off governmental inquiries suggesting smoking may be harmful.

The defense argued that Purdo’s cancer could have spurned from something other than his smoking habit, as the disease didn’t reveal itself until 15 years after the former lawyer had quit.

“What the evidence will show is that he never had the types of symptoms that people who have lung cancer have," RJ Reynolds attorney Jeffrey L. Furr argued. "He quit at such a young age, and he quit so long before, that ... nobody was looking at that issue (of smoking causation) until after this lawsuit was filed."

Furr argued that because Purdo’s cancer metastasized in the stomach, it’s unlikely that smoking was the cause. He also mentioned that Purdo showed few symptoms of smoking-related lung cancer patients, citing shortness of breath.

Paige quickly rebutted, suggesting Furr and the tobacco companies were merely trying to deflect blame. The attorney for the plaintiff was quick to point out the emotions involved in the case.

“Think about it, a little boy who’s 9 years old, he doesn’t have his father to help him with sports, talk to him about girls, help him learn how to tie a tie. That’s a big loss for the family. A little girl, she’s 15 years old, probably she needs her dad the most,” Paige said, evoking emotion from the jury.

Near the end of the proceedings, Phillip Morris attorney Bruce Tepikian spoke to the punishment the tobacco industry has already endured, stating that federally, the wrongdoings of the tobacco industry have been remedied. He cited federal restrictions on the industry and marketing requirements.

The plaintiffs quickly refuted that claim, saying federal changes had little to no impact on the lives for Purdo’s widow and children.

The decision is just one of many in Florida in the fallout of the decertification of the Engle class-action lawsuit in 2006. That allowed more than 700,000 people who would have previously won judgments under the suit to seek out their own solutions, and allow a jury to decide the legitimacy of their claims on a case-by-case basis.

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