FORT LAUDERDALE – Opening arguments began Wednesday in the case of a woman suing tobacco companies Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds for the nicotine-fueled addiction she alleges caused her smoking-related illnesses including lung cancer, pitting plaintiff attorneys against those for the defense who contend she would have smoked no matter what.
Attorneys representing the plaintiff Karla Zingaro and her husband Robert will make a case that tobacco companies deliberately campaigned to deceive the public and hide or deny the truth causing the smoking addiction that cost Zingaro health and happiness. They are asking for compensation and punitive damages for their client.
Defense attorneys will maintain Zingaro knew full well the dangers connected with smoking and despite warnings and entreaties to stop from friends and relatives, continued anyway, exercising freedom of choice that resulted in her health problems.
The trial in the 17th Judicial Circuit, one of two cases against Philip Morris to open this week in Florida, is being streamed live courtesy of Courtroom View Network.
Zingaro, 65, reportedly smoked up to two and sometimes three packs of cigarettes a day for 40 years.
Zingaro’s attorney, Todd Falzone of the Kelly/Uustal law firm based in Fort Lauderdale, told the jury the tobacco companies had engaged in a long-term conspiracy to hide the dangers of smoking from the public to protect their profits.
Falzone took a cigarette from a pack and put it in his mouth, then removed the cigarette, saying, “It looks crazy to do that in 2019 in a courtroom in Florida doesn’t it?”
Falzone said the case will look at decisions made by the tobacco companies going back 100 years and particularly from the 1950s through the 1990s. He indicated that only through understanding the past record of deceit by the tobacco companies could the jury have a full understanding of the case.
“Back then (1950s) lawyers could be smoking in the courtroom,” Falzone said. “Things have changed.”
Falzone said for over half a century the tobacco industry enacted one of the greatest and most deadly conspiracies on society.
“The records of the tobacco companies document every step of this terrible conspiracy,” he said.
He added that millions of documents and secret records outlining the conspiracy to deceive the public might not have come to light if it weren’t for litigation pursued against the tobacco companies by plaintiffs in the 1990s. In 1994, a group of Florida residents launched a class action against tobacco companies including Philip Morris that today is still adding plaintiff participants.
Falzone said the idea that smoking was simply a matter of choice is untrue because smokers did not understand the danger due to the deceptions of the tobacco companies.
Zingaro who started smoking at 15 quit smoking in 2009.
In 2014, she was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Falzone indicated she also continues to suffer from the effects of emphysema, including daily coughing, heaving and bronchitis, and has to resort to inhalers and pills to deal with the conditions.
“She (Zingaro) is a sick lady,” Falzone said.
Falzone said the cigarette makers had run a propaganda campaign through the years using powerful advertising to urge people to smoke even after the dangers became known in the 1970s, including appealing to the youth market of teenagers.
“What Karla Zingaro seeks is justice, that’s all anybody wants,” Falzone said.
Ken Reilly of the law firm of Shook, Hardy & Bacon headquartered in Kansas City, the attorney for Philip Morris, reminded the jury the case is not a part of the 1994 class action settlement.
“This is about one smoker (Karla Zingaro) and one smoker only, and because of the illness she unfortunately contracted,” Reilly said.
Reilly said in prior testimony Zingaro said she would have begun smoking as a teenager even if she had known she would get sick 20 years later.
“That’s what she told us,” Reilly said. “Some of her friends smoked and she (Zingaro) wanted to look cool.”
Reilly said Zingaro continued to smoke in spite of her knowledge of the risks.
“Smoking is pleasurable, she used it for relaxation,” Reilly said.
He added that Zingaro had struggled with anxiety and depression including bipolar disorder and used cigarettes and alcohol to deal with it. Reilly said she exhibited other compulsive behavior including obsessive shopping binges.
“She quit smoking in 2009 after she was told she had a serious medical condition,” Reilly said.
Reilly said what is not in dispute is that smoking cigarettes causes emphysema and lung cancer, or that quitting smoking takes action on a sustained basis.
“There’s no debate,” he said.
Reilly also conceded that in the past tobacco companies had made mistakes including disagreement with the U.S. Surgeon General about the harmful impacts of smoking.
“I won’t tell you otherwise,” Reilly said. “In 2000, they (tobacco companies) disagreed. Did this change Karla Zingaro’s smoking? Of course not.”
He said Zingaro was responsible and in control for the decisions she had made to smoke.
“They (plaintiff attorneys) are contending it was Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds who were responsible for her decisions,” Reilly said.
Reilly added that people important to her throughout her life had urged Zingaro to quit smoking, but she failed to take their advice.
Reilly told the jury they would have to decide liability in the case.
The attorney representing R.J. Reynolds is Jason Keehfus of the law firm King & Spaulding of Atlanta.
Florida 17th Circuit Judge Raag Singhal is presiding.