Lead attorney Mariano Garcia is left, then co-counsel Sia Baker Barnes in the red-orange dress. The plaintiff Gwendolyn Odom is the older lady in white dress. And co-counsel T. Hardee Bass to the right. from Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley, P.A. ()
Case: Gwendolyn Odom, representative of Estate of Juanita Thurston v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco
Case no: 50-2008-CA-038863
Description: Products liability
Filing date: Dec. 8, 2008
Trial dates: May 30-June 23, 2014
Judge: Palm Beach Circuit Judge Timothy McCarthy
Plaintiffs attorneys: Mariano Garcia, T. Hardee Bass III and Sia Baker-Barnes, Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley, West Palm Beach
Defense attorneys: Jeffrey Furr, Charlotte, N.C., and Jason Keehfus and Philip R. Green, Atlanta, King & Spalding
Verdict amount: $20 million
Details: Gwen Odom’s mother, Juanita Thurston, 58, of Boynton Beach died of lung cancer in 1993. Thurston quit smoking in 1987 after 38 years.
Odom sued R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. individually and on behalf of her mother’s estate. She alleged Thurston was a member of the so-called Engle class of a disbanded statewide class action, entitling her to assert the findings approved by the Florida Supreme Court including fraudulent concealment and conspiracy to fraudulently conceal the addictive and cancer-causing properties of cigarettes produced by leading tobacco companies.
Plaintiffs case: The plaintiffs attorneys alleged Thurston was addicted to nicotine and smoking caused her lung cancer and death. She preferred Salem Menthols, an R.J. Reynolds brand. Odom testified her mother began smoking at 14 before health warnings were required on cigarette packs.
Dr. David Burns, a San Diego pulmonologist, testified as a medical expert that smoking caused Thurston’s lung cancer.
Two addiction experts—Dr. K. Michael Cummings, from Charleston, S.C., and Dr. Joseph DiFranza from Worcester, Mass., told jurors Thurston was addicted.
To establish a claim for punitive damages and negate any comparative fault, Mariano Garcia introduced the history of R.J. Reynold’s fraudulent representations and an industry conspiracy to conceal the health risks of cigarettes.
Defense case: R.J. Reynolds has of policy of not commenting on pending litigation.
Garcia said a defense expert witness, Dr. Roger Samuel, a Boca Raton psychiatrist, contended Thurston was not addicted to cigarettes and testified she chose to smoke knowing the health risks.
The defense argued that since Thurston first tried to quit in 1976, she knew then that smoking was harmful to her health, Garcia said. The defense was trying to convince the jury that Thurston was not relying on tobacco company claims about the safety of smoking after May 5, 1982, which is a statute of limitations cutoff date required by the Fourth District Court of Appeal.
R.J. Reynolds also argued Thurston knew as early as 14 that there were health risks because by then there was enough public health information circulating in the media, he said.
“There was testimony by a former son-in-law that she had used the term ‘cancer sticks’ to describe cigarettes,” Garcia said.
Outcome: The jury found Thurston was addicted to cigarettes and relied on R.J. Reynolds’ concealment of material information about the health dangers of smoking. The jury found R.J. Reyonlds 75 percent at fault and awarded Odom just over $6 million in compensatory damages and $14 million in punitive damages. Compensatory damages were not reduced for comparative negligence because the jury found an intentional tort.
Comments: “Gwen was 42 when her mother died. They were not far apart in age. Juanita had Gwen at 16, and they had a very close relationship. Juanita had a second daughter, Miranda. She did not make a claim through the estate,” Garcia said.
Post-verdict: R.J. Reynolds filed a motion Monday to set aside the verdict and requested a directed verdict in its favor. In the alternative, the tobacco company requested a new trial or a reduction of the award.