FORT LAUDERDALE – A jury on Thursday awarded plaintiff Karla Zingaro $1.6 million in damages for pain and suffering both past and future, anguish and loss of enjoyment of life, from a smoking addiction that caused her to suffer life-threatening lung problems.
However, the verdict stopped short of levying punitive damages to punish cigarette makers Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds in the case.
Jury members decided Zingaro was legally addicted to nicotine, but assigned no percentage of blame to R.J. Reynolds, 16 percent blame to Philip Morris and 84 percent to Zingaro herself.
Neither company was found to have concealed information from Zingaro that caused her harm.
The accusations against the companies included conspiracy to deceive and negligence.
The trial in the 17th Judicial Circuit was streamed live courtesy of Courtroom View Network.
Zingaro and her husband Robert sued Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds for the lung cancer, emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) the woman developed saying the companies conspired to hide from the public the addictive nature of the cigarettes they sold and should pay compensatory and punitive damages.
Zingaro, 65, reportedly smoked up to two and sometimes three packs of cigarettes a day for 40 years.
She attempted to quit repeatedly to no avail but finally was able to quit in 2009 after using an E-cigarette, an electronic device that delivers nicotine to the brain without the chemical compounds in a normal cigarette.
Despite quitting, Zingaro developed lung cancer and received radiation treatments, then a second time when the cancer recurred. She also suffers greatly reduced breathing function. Her future prognosis is not good.
Zingaro’s attorney, Todd Falzone of the Kelly/Uustal law firm based in Fort Lauderdale, had asked the jury to award $10 million in compensation for past suffering and another $10 million for expected future pain, the totals including medical bills and loss of the enjoyment of life.
“We believed they (tobacco companies) concealed a lot of harms,” Falzone said during closing remarks. “She (Zingaro) tried to quit smoking dozens if not hundreds of times and she smoked until she had COPD and was in the hospital for 11 days. If that isn’t a picture of addiction, I don’t know what is.”
Plaintiff lawyers presented evidence they contended showed the tobacco companies had targeted young people to smoke particularly during the 1980s when smoking among adults started to decline because of a growing body of information about the dangers. The conspiracy to deny the truth about the health impacts of smoking was allegedly formalized after a meeting held in 1953 at the Plaza Hotel in New York among tobacco company heads to coordinate and combat a growing negative body of evidence.
However Ken Reilly of the law firm of Shook, Hardy & Bacon headquartered in Kansas City, the attorney for Philip Morris, and C.L. Vaughan with the firm of Kim Vaughan Lerner based in Fort Lauderdale, argued that Zingaro knew the dangers of smoking as millions of others who quit smoking did, and smoked anyway, so bore responsibility for her own health problems.
Reilly said Zingaro used smoking to deal with personal and family problems and because she found it enjoyable.
The defense produced documents from 2010 when Zingaro filed for Social Security benefits where she stated, “I feel no one cares about me so why should I stop smoking?” Another time she said in dealing with depression that cigarettes would “always be there for me.”
“Cigarettes helped her cope with anxiety and depression and were giving her pleasure,” Reilly said during closing remarks. “It is inappropriate to call her an addict.”
Reilly said Zingaro could have quit smoking but continued until she developed health problems and was told by doctors she had to quit.
Expert witnesses for the defense included Dr. Christopher Ticknor, a San Antonio-based forensic psychiatrist specializing in addictions. Ticknor used a chart of 11 criteria in which he said at least six were needed to be declared addicted. Ticknor said Zingaro only met three of the criteria and so did not qualify as an addict.
Plaintiff witnesses included Dr. David M. Burns, a San Diego pulmonologist and former professor with the University of San Diego School of Medicine, and Dr. Kenneth Cummings, a professor at the Hollings Center Cancer Prevention Institute at the Medical University of South Carolina.
Burns said Zingaro had shown classic signs of nicotine addiction, for example smoking all day long, keeping cigarettes by her bed and smoking in the morning as soon as she got up, taking breaks at a day care center where she worked and using the breaks to smoke.
Cummings explained the history of the cigarette industry including the development in the late 1800’s of cigarette rolling machines that made mass sales of cigarettes possible. Before, cigarettes had to be hand-rolled. Cummings said cigarette-makers knew from the 1950s there were harmful carcinogens in cigarette smoke. He said the tobacco companies had reassured the public they would fix or remove harmful chemicals if any were found, but continued to lie about the dangers of smoking until 2000 when they were pressured by court litigation.
Defense attorneys sought to portray Cummings as a highly biased witness who had been nicknamed “The General” in the war on tobacco.
Judicial 17th Circuit Judge Raag Singhal presided over the month-long trial.