Reynolds last month after doctors told him that 44 years of smoking caused his lung cancer.
- Plaintiff had lung removed due to cigarette addiction
- Thousands of lawsuits pending against big tobacco companies
- First payouts by big tobacco expected to be made today
Emmon Smith, a minister in Mariana, Florida, started smoking when he was a 13-year-old boy in 1944. Despite numerous attempts to quit, he couldn’t kick the addictive habit until he was forced to in 1992 by a cancer diagnosis and subsequent removal of one of his lungs.
Smith sued tobacco company R.J. Reynolds in 2008, and in March of this year a jury awarded him $10 million in compensatory damages and $20 million in punitive damages; however, they found the plaintiff 30 percent at fault so he will receive only $7 million of the compensatory award, for a total of $27 million.
The Smith case was just one of more than 8,000 lawsuits against tobacco companies stemming from a 1990s class action known as the Engle case. In 2000, a Florida jury awarded class members a stunning $145 billion in punitive damages, finding that cigarettes are dangerous, addictive, carcinogenic, and most importantly, that tobacco companies knew all this and lied about it. “They found that tobacco was a defective product, that the companies were negligent, guilty of fraud, caused various diseases including lung cancer, were involved in conspiracy to defraud the American people and on and on,” says Stuart Ratzan of the Ratzan Law Group.
Justice at Last
Among the diseases found to be caused by smoking were aortic aneurysm, bladder cancer, cerebral vascular disease, cervical cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, coronary heart disease, esophageal cancer, kidney cancer, laryngeal cancer, lung cancer, complications of pregnancy, oral cavity/tongue cancer, pancreatic cancer, peripheral vascular disease, pharyngeal cancer and stomach cancer.
However, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the $145 billion punitive part of the Engle award in 2006. “The Supreme Court ruled that individual plaintiffs would have to file suit for damages individually,” Ratzan explains. “Punitive damages had to be reversed and each member of the class had to file a case to prove how much damages they were entitled to.”
Today thousands of suits are still pending. “Plaintiffs have to prove they were addicted to cigarettes, that cigarettes caused them lung cancer, or pulmonary disease, or one of the other diseases,” says Ratzan.
Earlier this month the United States Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal filed by R.J. Reynolds over a $28.3 million award, and today the company is expected to finally pay out the damages it owes in the first two Engle progeny cases, with thousands left to go. “Maybe one day the class will get its justice,” Ratzan says.