Cigarette-makers should pay roughly $15 million to a 91-year-old Delray Beach man who watched his 81-year-old wife die a painful death from lung cancer and other diseases brought on by a lifetime of smoking, attorneys told a Palm Beach County jury today.
On a contentious day in court, attorney Scott Schlesinger used tobacco industry memos to remind the eight jurors how misinformation, manipulation and deceit by the tobacco industry lured millions of Americans, like Helen Cohen, to take up a habit that they were then powerless to stop.
“Helen was an innocent,” he said as Cohen’s widower, David, looked on. “She was addicted when she was a teenager.”
Young people have long been targeted by cigarette-makers, he said. Companies like R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard, Liggett and Philip Morris know if they hook teens, they will have them for life and, in millions of cases, death, Schlesinger said. Young brains are particularly susceptible to nicotine, a drug he claimed is as addictive as heroin or cocaine. Few longtime smokers begin after they turn 21 and those who do have less difficulty quitting, he said.
Holding up a pack of cigarettes, he said: “This is a nicotine delivery device. It serves no other purpose than to deliver nicotine to the brain.”
Schlesinger’s often flamboyant closing statement was punctuated by objections from teams of lawyers representing the four companies that produced the brands Cohen smoked for roughly 50 years.
The attorneys rose in unison several times, at one point asking for a mistrial when Schlesinger said the industry never apologized for misdeeds that are documented in thousands of internal memos. After sending jurors out of the courtroom, Circuit Judge Meenu Sasser warned Schlesinger to watch his tongue. She reserved ruling on the request for a mistrial in an apparent attempt to rein Schlesinger in.
Attorneys for the cigarette giants — R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard, Liggett and Philip Morris — are to make their closing arguments Wednesday. Then, the jury will begin deliberations.
Tobacco attorneys are expected to argue that Cohen could have followed the example of millions of other smokers and simply quit. She was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in 1990, five years after the government forced cigarette-makers to put labels on packs, warning that smoking is linked to a variety of ills, including emphysema, they said.
Attorney Steven Hammer, who also represents David Cohen, said Helen Cohen was partially to blame for her own death. Cohen is also seeing punitive damages.
The lawsuit is among thousands that were filed statewide after the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 threw out a $145 billion verdict in a class-action lawsuit against tobacco companies. Smokers and their families must prove their unique damages individually, it ruled.
Since then, 77 cases have gone to trial, says the Tobacco Control Resource Center at Northeastern University. Smokers and their families have won 53; the rest were verdicts for big tobacco. In Palm Beach County, two widows of smokers won multimillion-dollar verdicts and cigarette-makers won the other two trials.