MIAMI – Opening arguments began Tuesday in a trial to determine if cigarette maker Phillip Morris caused a man’s smoking addiction leading him to suffer cardiovascular and coronary artery damage and eventually a debilitating stroke that left him in what plaintiff attorneys contended was a shell of his former self.
They exhibited photos for a jury showing plaintiff Harry Olsen before and after his health problems, the last picture showing him visibly aged and walking with the aid of a cane. Olsen died in 2006.
The lawsuit was brought against Philip Morris by Olsen’s estate.
“Make no mistake nicotine is an addictive drug,” plaintiff attorney Michael Alvarez of the Alvarez Law Firm of Coral Gables told a jury. “Every cigarette (smoked) has about 10 parts nicotine.”
Plaintiff attorneys will make the case that Phillip Morris engaged in a deliberate campaign of deception and marketed a product they knew was injurious to health for profits, in what amounted to a conspiracy to deny the truth despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Defense attorneys maintained Olsen had plenty of knowledge about the dangers of smoking and chose to disregard it, absolving Philip Morris of responsibility for personal decisions Olsen made for himself.
The trial in the Dade County Courthouse is being streamed live courtesy of Courtroom View Network.
The litigation is the second trial to open in a Florida court against Philip Morris. Last week another hearing got under way in the 17th Judicial Court in Fort Lauderdale.
Alvarez said Olsen had been smoking up to two packs of cigarettes a day for 35 years and had started the habit as a teenager in the 1960s.
He spent two decades in middle age trying to quit smoking, Alvarez said, including trying Nicorette gum as well as smoking "light" cigarettes.
The jury will be asked if Olsen is to be allowed to join a class action lawsuit against Philip Morris. In 1993, a group of Florida residents filed a class action suit against tobacco companies and new members of the class continue to be added.
Olsen’s health problems included a major stroke in 2003 that led him to suffer seizures, inability to swallow or to walk without the aid of a wheelchair and facial numbness among other symptoms all of which required rehabilitation treatments.
Alex Alvarez, also of the Alvarez Law Firm, said nicotine can be as addictive as heroin or cocaine.
“Approximately 500,000 people die each year from smoking-related diseases,” he said. “Smoking is the number one cause of preventable death.”
Alvarez said the tobacco companies campaigned to prevent the public from learning the truth about the dangers of smoking their products, including a meeting among top officials of the tobacco companies held at the Plaza Hotel in New York in 1953 to coordinate the efforts.
He exhibited a documented statement made at the meeting that quoted a cigarette official saying “It’s fortunate for us cigarettes are a habit they (smokers) can’t break.”
In 1966, tobacco companies for the first time were required to provide warning labels that cigarettes could be hazardous to health, and in 1970, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a warning that cigarette smoking caused lung cancer and emphysema.
The attorney defending Philip Morris, Frank Kelly of the San Francisco law firm of Shook, Hardy & Bacon, countered that cigarette makers had not caused Olsen’s addiction, and there was no evidence he was tricked or defrauded into smoking.
“Olsen was an intelligent, well-educated man,” Kelly said. “Mr. Olsen continued to smoke despite warnings from his doctors going as far back as the 1980s. His wife told him about the dangers of smoking, but he continued to smoke.”
Kelly said Olsen used smoking as a way to relieve stress.
“Smoking provided him with a benefit he was unable to find from anything else,” he said.
After attempts to quit smoking, Kelly said Olsen tried smoking smaller amounts.
“Addiction does not mean Mr. Olsen was not responsible for the consequences of his smoking,” Kelly said. “Was the information about the dangers hidden from him, no.”
Kelly raised the question - should Philip Morris be punished for conduct that occurred decades ago (1953 conference).
“The historical record we don’t dispute,” he said.
Kelly described Dr. Robert Proctor, a witness due to appear at the trial, as a full-time plaintiff witness who had made millions of dollars testifying in tobacco lawsuits.
“Did Mr. Olsen keep smoking because of something Philip Morris did not tell him?” Kelly asked. “Millions of people heard about the dangers of smoking and decided to quit."