FORT LAUDERDALE - Rita Mahfuz never had a chance to fend off her nearly two pack a day cigarette addiction, a Broward County jury ruled in rewarding her estate $37 million in damages on Feb. 28, in a suit that found both R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris liable.
“There’s not one piece of evidence from either side that Rita’s addiction was her choice,” Courtroom View News reports lead attorney Steven Hammer telling jurors just before they returned with a verdict awarding $12 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages from R.J. Reynolds and $15 million from Philip Morris.
“Because nobody chooses addiction,” added Hammer, of the Schlesinger Law Offices P.A. firm of Florida.
Rita Mahfuz’s days of chronic smoking started when she was an adolescent and continued for more than three decades. She died of lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) at 53 in 1999, seven years after doctors diagnosed her with lung cancer and had been forced to remove her right lung.
Her husband of 36-years, Richard Mahfuz, represented her estate at trial.
As part of his legal action, Richard Mahfuz argued that the two largest tobacco companies in the industry should be held responsible for his wife’s death because of a “scheme to hide the dangers of smoking” they spearheaded over the years that went hand in hand with mounting an aggressive advertising campaign that included plugs for filtered and "light" brand cigarettes deemed to be "safer" alternatives to other brands.
“Rita fell into the tobacco industry's trap,” Hammer added to jurors. “She was addicted as a child and became hooked on the nicotine in cigarettes. This jury saw through tobacco companies' defenses of placing blame on the victim and placed it where it belongs - on the manufacturer."
Over the years, Mahfuz reportedly tried quitting the R.J. Reynolds' Winston, Philip Morris' Benson & Hedges and Virginia Slims brands she strategically chose as “safer” options for her. According to AccessWire.com, her attempts to quit included going as far as undergoing hypnosis, trying plastic cigarettes and incessantly chewing gum.
“You have a chance today to punish them, and speak to them in the only term that they understand, money," added Jonathan Gdanski, another member of Richard Mahfuz’s legal team. "She was a success story to the tobacco industry. They were happy to profit from her while she was alive but argued their products were not responsible for her addiction or death."
In finding both companies 90 percent at fault for Mahfuz’s cancer and that she “reasonably relied to her detriment” on their claims of safety, jurors rejected the defense's argument that Rita Mahfuz was fully aware of the dangers of smoking and only moved to quit her longtime habit after she had already been diagnosed with her fatal condition.
Representing Reynolds, Jeffrey Furr, a partner with King & Spalding of Chicago, argued Mahfuz routinely ignored the warnings of family members and continued smoking even though her husband quit two decades before she finally made the leap.
“He’s here today as a 78-year old because he chose health,” Furr added. “Rita chose to continue smoking.”
During closings of the trial’s punitive phase, Hildy Sastre, administrative managing partner with the Shook Hardy firm of Chicago, sought to remind jurors that the tobacco industry of today is much different from yesteryear and much more regulated from the time when Mahfuz became addicted.
"The Philip Morris of today is a different company,” she said. “The Philip Morris of today operates in a different environment, with different people, different management.”
Early on in closing arguments, Mahfuz's legal team established that it was seeking at least $42 million in damages, including $12 million in compensatory damages, and $15 million in punitive damages against each company.