Jury increases Delray Beach woman's tobacco verdict to $20 million

Updated June 23, 2014
Gwen Odom leaves court during the lunch break Monday, June 23, 2014. A jury returned to a Palm Beach County courtroom to decide how much to punish R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. for the 1993 lung cancer death of a Boynton Beach woman. When it on Friday awarded Odom $6 million for losing her 58-year-old mother, Juanita Thurston, it also decided the tobacco giant should pay punitive damages. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Gwen Odom remembers looking at her 58-year-old mother, her body ravaged by lung cancer, and never forgot the words she said.

“If I knew then what I know now, I would never have picked up a cigarette,” Juanita Thurston, who began smoking when she was 14, said shortly before she died in 1993.

On Monday, 20 years after Odom joined a class-action lawsuit that was supposed to compensate her mother and thousands of others for the lies the tobacco industry told to get them to smoke and keep them hooked, the 63-year-old Delray Beach woman finally got the justice that eluded her mother.

After roughly two hours of deliberation, a Palm Beach County jury ordered R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. to pay Odom $14 million in punitive damages for robbing her of 25 years she could have spent with her mother had the cigarette-maker told the ugly truth about smoking. Added to the $6 million it awarded her Friday in compensatory damages, Odom could get as much as $20 million from the tobacco giant that made $3.1 billion last year.

“Justice was done for my mother today,” Odom said. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Attorney Jeff Furr, who represented R.J. Reynolds during the two-week trial, declined comment, as did company officials.

Throughout the day-long trial on punitive damages, Furr referred to Friday’s verdict as a $4.5 million award. That’s because although the jury of four women and two men awarded Odom $6 million, they found Thurston 25 percent responsible for her own death.

But Odom’s attorney Mariano Garcia contends that because jurors agreed that R.J. Reynolds fraudulently concealed the dangers of cigarette smoking, Odom is entitled to the entire $6 million.

The dispute ultimately will be sorted out by Circuit Judge Timothy McCarthy.

To persuade them not to award punitive damages, Furr repeatedly told jurors that R.J. Reynolds has changed dramatically since the years when it lied about the dangers of smoking, targeted ad campaigns at young people and used doctors and professional athletes to persuade people that smoking wasn’t only safe, but glamorous.

“What’s changed since the day Juanita Thurston quit smoking in 1987?” he asked jurors. “Everything.”

Since the company in 1997 reached a settlement with the attorneys general of states nationwide, it has paid $42 billion into public coffers to combat smoking. Florida alone has received $2 billion, he said. The company now publicizes the hazards of smoking on its web site and has developed electronic cigarettes and other products to reduce the risks of smoking.

“There’s a zero chance of Reynolds concealing information in 2014 or being able to in the future,” he said.

Odom’s attorneys countered that it doesn’t matter what Reynolds has done in the years since Thurston’s death.

“How many times during Juanita Thurston’s life did they do what was right? Zero” attorney Rosalyn Sia Baker-Barnes said.

She told jurors to send a message to corporations that deceit won’t be tolerated. “It’s not sufficient to come back and say how we’re different now. We’re talking about conduct that took a life,” she said.

Odom is the ninth person in Palm Beach County and roughly the 75th statewide to win an award from cigarette-makers in connection with injuries and deaths from smoking. All of the cases stem from a 1994 class-action lawsuit. While a jury awarded smokers and their families $145 billion, the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 threw out the jury award, ruling that each person must prove their damages in separate trials. About 5,000 cases are pending statewide.

The tobacco industry has appealed all of the verdicts. Few with success. Odom said she realizes it could be years before the company pays her the money the jury said she deserves.

“That’s all right,” she said. “The verdict is there. That’s all that matters.”