A team of lawyers at the Schlesinger Law Offices convinced a Broward County jury to award $37 million in damages to the family of lifelong smoker Rita Mahfuz, who died of lung cancer in 1999.
Steven J. Hammer, Brittany Chambers, Jonathan R. Gdanski and Scott P. Schlesinger argued that tobacco giants R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Philip Morris USA Inc. used misleading ads to prey on people like Mahfuz, who was just 13 when she picked up her first pack.
Mahfuz died at 53 — a young age to suffer from lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung disease that blocks airways and causes wheezing. The team estimates jurors were likely struck by Mahfuz’s early death and back story.
Mahfuz’s husband, Richard, brought the original lawsuit in 2007 blaming the tobacco corporations for her early death. His wife had often smoked Winston cigarettes, owned by R.J. Reynolds, and Virginia Slims, owned by Philip Morris.
Richard Mahfuz was lost without his wife, according to Hammer, as they were childhood sweethearts.
“They didn’t have much, but whatever they had they gave to their kids and made sure that they had a good life together,” Hammer said. “When they finally got to the age where they could retire, she died.”
The case is one of thousands of similar suits emanating from a 2016 Florida Supreme Court ruling that overturned a $145 billion verdict against Big Tobacco and gave the go-ahead for 700,000 other individuals to bring similar cases in future.
As with any Engle progeny trial, the plaintiff had to convince a jury that the smoker’s nicotine addiction was the legal cause of a smoking-related ailment.
Kathryn S. Lehman and Jeffrey L. Furr of King Spalding’s Atlanta and Charlotte offices represented R.J. Reynolds, while Hildy Sastre of Shook, Hardy & Bacon in Miami represented Philip Morris. They did not respond to requests for comment before deadline.
Though $37 million is a hefty verdict, in Hammer’s eyes it does little to rectify the damage.
“These companies make $10 million to $15 million a day,” Hammer said. “So in the scheme of things it wasn’t really much of a penalty to them. They lost maybe a day’s worth of profit for killing somebody.”
In Gdanski’s view, there’s no more important industry to hold accountable today.
“It can send a message to other industries that if you behave as a corporate citizen the way they did, then at some point, either through regulation or litigation, you can be held accountable,” Gdanski said. “That’s a meaningful message to have out there when, unfortunately, there are opportunities for powerful industries to run amuck.”
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