Alex Alvarez, of The Alvarez Law Firm. (Photo: J. Albert Diaz/ALM)

Coral Gables attorneys known for their work on Engle progeny cases have notched another victory—to the tune of $7.25 million.

In November Alex Alvarez and Nick Reyes of the Alvarez Law Firm argued on behalf of Paul Rouse in his suit against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.

Rouse, a New Port Richey resident who began smoking cigarettes at the age of 8, brought legal action against the cigarette conglomerate for misleading customers with public campaigns that underplayed the dangers of its products. A jury found the company had played a considerable part in causing the plaintiff’s nicotine addiction and subsequent heart disease.

Related story: Meet Alex Alvarez, the Coral Gables Lawyer Winning Millions Against Cigarette Companies

Rouse only quit smoking after undergoing triple bypass surgery in 1999 at the age of 45. By the time of his procedure, he was smoking two to three packs of cigarettes a day.

Nicholas Reyes, attorney with the Alvarez Law Firm in Coral Gables, Florida.

“Starting from 1990 all through the ’90s, he tried to quit multiple times,” Reyes said. “He tried to quit cold turkey. He tried to slow down. … He just couldn’t do it.”

The attorney noted there were times when Rouse would leave his house to buy cigarettes at 3 or 4 a.m., unable to sleep without a nicotine fix. Alvarez said his client had no other risk factors for severe coronary heart disease, besides his intense cigarette consumption.

“When he was diagnosed, he didn’t have a family history [of heart disease], did not have hypertension and was not obese,” Alvarez said.  “A man at 45 should not be having a triple bypass unless he has some risk factors … and the only one was heavy smoking.”

Alvarez and Reyes cited the plaintiff’s working-class background and upbringing to contextualize the severity of his tobacco dependence.

“He grew up in a place where people farmed for tobacco,” Alvarez explained. “It was a big part of the economy at his time. We showed a postcard to the jury that said, ‘Rocky Mount: Tobacco Land.’”

Attorneys said Rouse’s ability to testify on the extent of his addiction distinguished his case from other Engle progeny suits, where plaintiffs are either far more debilitated than Rouse, or bringing  wrongful death actions on behalf of dead smokers.

“He was able to explain in his own words how he felt and why he began smoking,” Alvarez said, adding his client’s testimony acknowledged he was exposed to cigarette advertisements and marketing. “He smoked Winstons because they were filtered. They were the first filtered cigarettes R.J. Reynolds ever made, and in 1970 they were the most popular cigarettes in the U.S.”

Rouse continued to smoke because he thought the filters kept him safe.

“He said that multiple times,” Reyes said. “He thought it wouldn’t be an issue.”

Read the complaint: 

The cessation of Rouse’s smoking habit did not occur without the help of friends and family. Rouse could not drive for several months following his operation, and neither his friends nor wife would pick up cigarettes for him.

Despite undergoing invasive surgery and possessing multiple stents, Rouse continued to work as a truck driver after his triple bypass. By the time he stopped working in 2014, he’d also had a stint at a water treatment facility. But today, his attorneys say he can’t walk without getting chest pains.

R.J. Reynolds—who were represented by King & Spalding attorneys Cory Hohnbaum and Todd Davis—centered its argument on the plaintiff’s ability to quit post-surgery.

Hohnbaum and Davis did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

“The defense was that he was not addicted to nicotine or cigarettes and could have quit anytime,” Reyes said. According to Reyes, the defense contended Rouse “would’ve ended up with coronary heart disease way with or without the cigarettes.”

The jury ultimately awarded Rouse $5 million in compensatory damages, in addition to entering $2.25 million in punitive damages against R.J. Reynolds. Reyes said the client was “happy to be successful,” but that no sum of money could fully alleviate his physical discomfort.

“It’s never going to go away,” Reyes said. “He’d obviously much rather be healthy, but he was very happy with how the case turned out.”

Case: Paul E. Rouse and Gracie S. Rouse v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

Case No.: 17-017202-CA-24

Description: Engle progeny lawsuit

Filing date: July 18, 2017

Verdict dates: Nov. 21, 2018 with $5 million in compensatory damages; and Nov. 26, 2018, with $2.25 million in punitive damages

Plaintiff’s attorneys: Alex Alvarez and Nick Reyes, The Alvarez Law Firm, Coral Gables

Defense attorneys: Cory Hohnbaum and Todd Davis, King & Spalding, Atlanta, Georgia, and Charlotte, North Carolina

Judge: Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Antonio Arzola

Verdict: $7.25 million