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Tobacco industry attorneys fell back on a classic defense that smokers are to blame for their illnesses as they attempted to fend off the claims of the first so-called Engle plaintiff to take his case before a jury in the landmark Florida smokers class action. Industry lawyers delivered their message Wednesday in opening statements in Miami-Dade Circuit Court as John Lukacs became the first of hundreds of thousands of Florida smokers to stake his claim to a share of the $145 billion verdict won against tobacco companies in July 2000. Lukacs, 77, is terminally ill with tongue and bladder cancers. He was part of the class action lawsuit filed on behalf of an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 Florida smokers who won the history-making verdict against the nation’s five biggest cigarette makers. That case was brought by Miami attorneys Stanley and Susan Rosenblatt. Stanley Rosenblatt sat in the back of Circuit Judge Amy Steele Donner’s courtroom as the trial started. Gordon Smith of King & Spalding in Atlanta, who represents Brown & Williamson, told jurors this case wasn’t about whether smoking causes cancer because it does, he acknowledged. “It’s about whether someone can quit or not,” he said. The fact that Lukacs was able to quit showed that he was capable of making decisions for himself, Smith argued. “He was not a man under control of the tobacco companies who did everything he was told to do,” Smith said. “His ability to quit places responsibility on him,” Smith said. Smokers like Lukacs must try their cases individually to determine how much of the multibillion dollar award they are entitled to. Lukacs’ case is against Liggett Group, Brown & Williamson and Philip Morris, makers of the brands he smoked. He won the right to go to trial last month after the 3rd District Court of Appeal affirmed a lower court ruling permitting his case to go forward, while the class action case was under appeal. The tobacco companies had argued that his case should be put on hold while they appeal the ruling. Lukacs wanted to get his case to trial before his death. During Wednesday’s opening statements, one of Lukacs’ trial attorneys, Philip Gerson of Gerson & Davis in Miami, took jurors on a trip through time, detailing how Lukacs first began smoking in 1943 in his teens and continued for 30 years until he quit in the early 1970s. Gerson argued that Lukacs’ habit was fueled by years of advertising generated by tobacco companies that celebrated smoking through the use of entertainers and sports figures who endorsed their products. “Tobacco companies sent a message to my client this was a good, safe and glamorous product,” Gerson told the six-member jury. By the time Lukacs quit, he was up to three packs or 60 cigarettes a day, but by then the damage had been done, Gerson said. In 1999, Lukacs’ tongue was removed and doctors have said he has a few months left to live. Lukacs and his wife, Yolanda, along with his daughter and grandson sometimes wiped away tears as Gerson detailed his client’s life and appealed to the jury’s emotion. “He had no idea each puff of smoke microscopically injured him in ways he wouldn’t realize until he was in his 60s,” Gerson said. It is unclear how much money Gerson will seek. He said he would ask for a specific amount later in the trial. Jurors also will be asked to determine if smoking was what caused Lukacs’ cancer. “There are a lot of cases where the cause of cancer isn’t known. It happens,” Smith said. The trial is expected to last several weeks.

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