Jury: Tobacco firm only partly to blame for woman’s illness

Stella Koballa DELAND — A jury deliberated for nearly five hours today before finding a tobacco company was only partly responsible for a woman’s lung cancer.

The jury of six, one of them a smoker, found Stella Koballa, 77, of Daytona Beach was herself 70 percent responsible for the pain, suffering and other damages she endured after she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1996.

The jury found Koballa suffered $1 million in damages from her addiction to cigarettes, although it remains to be seen what amount the judge will order she be paid, if anything.

Jurors also decided a separate phase to determine punitive damages to punish cigarette maker R.J Reynolds Co. for deception was not necessary because concealment of health risks was not a factor in her illness.

“We will be seeking a final judgment in favor of the defendants Monday,” Benjamine Reid, the lead attorney for the tobacco company, said after the verdict was announced.

Koballa’s case is the first of about 150 local tobacco lawsuits to go to trial.

She had part of her lung removed to save her life after lung cancer was discovered in 1996 and never smoked again. Koballa declined to comment as she left the courthouse with her two daughters.

Koballa’s lawyers told the jury they were seeking $8 million in damages from the cigarette maker as a result of her claims of product liability and negligence.

Koballa testified in the three-week trial that she began smoking in 1949 at the age of 16. “It was the glamorous thing to do,” she told the jury.

Her lawyers argued R.J. Reynolds sold a product that was negligently defective because of the illness it caused. They argued the company was deceptive about hiding the health risks of smoking.

Attorneys for the tobacco company, led by Reid, argued Koballa started smoking and kept smoking because of choices she made.

“Advertising and marketing were not the reason she smoked,” Reid said in his closing argument. “Mrs. Koballa was fully aware of the risks.”

With the verdict, there was some disagreement among both sides as to what it meant. The jury assessed 30 percent of the blame for Koballa’s damages on the tobacco company and 70 percent of the blame on Koballa herself.

The jury answered “no” to questions on whether the tobacco company was negligent in causing Koballa’s cancer by placing “defective and unreasonably dangerous cigarettes” on the market, or whether the cigarettes she smoked were a legal cause of her cancer and damages.

The total damages assessed for her pain and suffering was set at $1 million, meaning the tobacco company was considered by the jury to be responsible for $300,000, lawyers said.

That will be up to Circuit Judge Robert K. Rouse Jr., who presided over the trial, to decide.

“This case is very simple,” Koballa’s attorney Dennis Pantazis told the jury in his closing argument. “What did RJR know and what did they tell the public, including Ms. Koballa, about the product they were selling?”

Lawyers for the tobacco company, however, turned that argument around, focusing on their point that Koballa knew the risks, and chose to smoke in spite of those risks.

Of the 35 lawsuits to go to trial in Florida since the Florida Supreme Court opened up the floodgates in 2006 for the filing of individual smoker suits, 10 have been brought by plaintiffs who are alive, records show.

Three of those have been mistrials and three have been found in favor of tobacco companies, according to court records. Four have been won by plaintiffs, including Koballa, with verdicts ranging from $300,000 to $300 million.

“You have to decide whether R.J. Reynolds should be punished for what it did,” Reid had argued. “I submit Ms. Koballa is responsible, because she made the choices. She knew how to quit and she chose not to quit.”

source: www.news-journalonline.com

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