MIAMI – Lawyers for two big tobacco companies defending themselves against charges that they were responsible for the lung cancer of an individual are arguing that a Cuban native began smoking long before he came to the United States and used their brands.
The widow of Cuban-born Juan Lopez, who died in 1994, is suing Phillip Morris and RJ Reynolds, claiming the tobacco companies were responsible for the man's lung cancer because they suppressed information and continued to deny cigarettes were dangerous and defective as late as 2000.
Lopez's family sued under the Engle class ruling, which has led to the filing of thousands of individual lawsuits in Florida. The trial began Friday in Miami-Dade County Court.
It stems from the 1994 filing of a class action that ultimately led to a jury awarding $145 billion in punitive damages against the companies. An appellate court reversed the award, a finding to which the state Supreme Court agreed, but crucially made clear that those issues decided in the class action could be argued against in the individual cases.
And that means the juries begin their deliberations understanding the fact that cigarettes are addictive, dangerous, and the cause of multiple diseases, and that the tobacco companies were negligent, and committed fraud and conspiracy. It leaves little room to maneuver for the defense in the some 2,700 individual cases still pending.
In opening arguments, lawyers for RJ Reynolds and Philip Morris both argued that Lopez was smoking for 20 years before arriving in the U.S. in 1979, and that therefore he cannot claim damages under the Engel principles.
There was an Important culture of smoking cigarettes in Cuba - indeed more popular earlier in that country than in the U.S., the jury was told.
That was where Lopez began to smoke, continued to smoke, and that was sufficient to cause his lung cancer long before he ever smoked U.S. brands, it was argued.
The plaintiff must prove causation, the attorney for RJ Reynolds said, adding that the jury should remember this is about one smoker, that it is an individual case.
Further, it was well known in Cuba that cigarettes were dangerous and addictive, and that Lopez was surrounded by warnings in both countries.
An attorney for Lopez walked the jury through the history of cigarette smoking in the U.S., and the "conspiracy" by the tobacco companies that led to the aggressive campaign to counter information regarding cigarettes' dangers beginning in the mid 1950s.
He also pointed out that cigarettes were the most heavily marketed products in the U.S. from the 1960s through the 1980s.
When Lopez got off that plane in 1979, he walked into a culture, walked into a society, and walked into the new world, the attorney said.
The plaintiff's team will, however, be focusing on those years from 1979 to 1993, when the Cuban native contracted cancer.
They will argue that the marketing continued to be hugely aggressive during the 1980s, and will focus on advertising to the Hispanic community, including the Cuban population of south Florida.
Even after the surgeon general definitively stated in 1988 that nicotine was a drug and highly addictive, the tobacco companies remained in denial, it was argued in opening statements.
Lopez comes under the Engle class because he contracted cancer prior to the 1996, the cut-off point, the jury heard.
Earlier last week, another Florida jury, in Sarasota, awarded a $10 million punitive award against Philip Morris and $4 million against RJ Reynolds. It was the second damages phase of the trial over the death of Fred Theis. With compensatory, total damages awarded were $21 million..
The jury found Philip Morris to be 60 percent responsible for Theis' lung cancer, with Reynolds at 15 percent and 25 percent to the deceased.
While there have been a number of recent large multimillion dollar awards against tobacco companies, one trial in March ended with the jury awarding no money to the smoker's widow despite that RJ Reynolds was partially responsible,
The jury, however, attributed 95 percent of the blame for the fatal cancer on the smoker.