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Tampa, FL— Jurors last week handed down a $1.5 million verdict for a Florida smoker’s respiratory disease-related death, but apportioned less than half the responsibility for the fatal illness to defendant R.J. Reynolds.  Hancock v. R.J. Reynolds, 2009-CA-018859.

The Florida 13th Circuit Court jury, in Tampa, needed less than four hours to conclude that Jimmy Hancock’s chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD,  was caused by an addiction to cigarettes. However, jurors found Hancock 60% responsible for the disease and apportioned 40% of responsibility to Reynolds. Jurors also rejected fraud and conspiracy claims against Reynolds, which likely means the post-verdict award will be reduced to $600,000.

Hancock began smoking as a teen in the 1950s and continued smoking up to two packs of cigarettes a day before ultimately quitting in 2006. Hancock died of COPD in 2009, 15 years after being diagnosed with the disease. His family contends that his death was caused by his addiction to cigarettes and Reynolds’s role in a long-term conspiracy to hide the dangers of smoking. 

The lawsuit is one of thousands of so-called Engle-progeny cases, claims spun from a 1990s class action by Florida smokers against the nation’s tobacco companies. After a trial court verdict in favor of the plaintiffs, the Florida Supreme Court decertified the class, ruling individual plaintiffs could recover only if they proved the smoker at the heart of each case was addicted to cigarettes that caused a disease such as COPD.

The six-day trial focused in large part on who bore responsibility for Hancock’s smoking. During closings last Wednesday, The Ruth Law Team’s Eric Roslansky reminded jurors of evidence he said showed the tobacco giant misled the public for decades concerning the addictive nature and dangers of cigarettes. And he said Reynolds worked for years to undercut smokers’ efforts to quit cigarettes. “They chose to try to intercept, to try to stop smokers who wanted to quit,” Roslansky said. 

But Reynolds argues that Hancock knew the dangers of smoking and was not interested in quitting cigarettes in time to prevent his fatal respiratory disease. During his closing, Jones Day’s Bradley Harrison reminded jurors Hancock ignored repeated warnings from family members and doctors to quit smoking. And he noted Hancock ultimately succeeded in quitting cigarettes “cold turkey,” without the help of smoking cessation aids. 

“Mr. Hancock always had the ability to quit smoking because when he put his mind to it, he did quit smoking,” Harrison said. “And that’s the best evidence in this case.”

Email Arlin Crisco at [email protected].

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