Case: William Crawford v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco

Case no: 11-14352CA20

Description: Product liability

Filing date: May 9, 2011

Trial dates: Sept. 16-30, 2013

Judge: Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ronald Dresnick

Plaintiff attorneys: Alex Alvarez, Alvarez Law Firm, Miami; Randy Rosenblum, Freiden, Dobrinsky, Brown & Rosenblum, Miami

Defense attorney: Mark Belasic and Dennis Murphy, Jones Day, Cleveland

Jury award: $10 million

Details: William Crawford, 78, of Stuart started smoking at 7. He was born during the Great Depression and raised in a rural Alabama farming community where it was commonplace for men to begin smoking young.

“His brothers smoked. His friends smoked. He was a regular smoker by age 15,” Alvarez said.

In the early 1960s, Crawford noticed public health announcements claiming smoking may be hazardous to health. He switched from unfiltered Camels to filtered Winston cigarettes, relying on tobacco company commercials that marketed them as the safer choice.

“He kept smoking, believing the filters would keep him safe,” Alvarez said. “Crawford also heard tobacco executives on TV and in newspapers, saying it had not been proven that smoking cigarettes did cause cancer or diseases.”

Crawford worked in hotel management all over the state. He was free to smoke in his office, and he did so every day, Alvarez said.

Crawford finally quit smoking in 1989, but a couple years later he developed laryngeal cancer and had to have his vocal chords removed. He speaks through a hole in his throat with an electrolarynx device.

Plaintiffs case: Venue was in Miami by mutual agreement. Crawford was a member of the disbanded Engle class, which by Florida Supreme Court order was allowed to carry over anti-tobacco findings from a Miami jury. Juries are automatically allowed to presume cigarettes are a toxic product, pose health hazards, are addictive and their makers hid this information.

Plaintiffs expert witnesses included Robert Proctor, a Stanford University historian on the tobacco industry. Dr. Joseph Califano, an otolaryngologist from Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, discussed links between Crawford’s smoking and his cancer.

Alvarez said the trial was somewhat unusual because Crawford testifies on his own smoking history. Many tobacco trials involve a dead smoker.

Defense case: Reynolds defense attorneys did not respond to a request for comment.

The company called on a Boca Raton psychiatrist, Dr. Roger Samuel, to testify Crawford was not addicted to smoking.

The defense claimed Crawford’s cancer was not caused by smoking and maintained it could just as easily have been caused by gastric reflux or social drinking. However, no medical expert witness was introduced to establish any of those claims.

The defense requested, and Alvarez allowed, a jury question asking whether Crawford relied to his detriment on any misleading statements by Reynolds after May 5, 1982.

The timing question has been used successfully as a form of statute of limitations to reverse damages in other cases in the Fourth District Court of Appeal. Miami-Dade is under the Third District and not subject to that case law, but the issue is now before the Florida Supreme Court.

Outcome: The jury found a nicotine addiction and smoking caused Crawford’s cancer. It also found Crawford relied to his detriment on Reynolds misrepresentations about the effects of smoking, and that his reliance involved Reynold’s agreement with other tobacco companies to conceal damaging information about smoking.

The cigarette maker was found to be 70 percent at fault, and Crawford was found 30 percent at fault. However, because of the finding on material misrepresentations, Crawford’s comparative fault was negated.

The jury awarded him $9 million for pain, suffering, disfigurement and anguish. He was also awarded $1 million in punitive damages.

Comments: “I agreed (to the timing question) even though the law in this district is that it’s not required,” Alvarez said. “In case we get an adverse ruling in Hess v. R.J. Reynolds, we wouldn’t have to retry.”

Post-verdict: Dresnick entered final judgment for $10 million on Oct. 8. He denied Reynolds’ motions for new trial or reduction of the compensatory damages award Oct. 18. Reynolds filed a notice of appeal Nov. 14.