Lawyers wrap up Palm Beach County’s first Big Tobacco trial; jury to begin deliberations

Charles Piendle made a fatal mistake: He believed tobacco companies that smoking was safe, attorneys representing his widow told a jury today.

The Royal Palm Beach man who died of smoking-related lung cancer in 1996 at age 55 may have known about surgeon general reports, read the warning labels on cigarette packs and even called cigarettes “Cancer Sticks” or “Coffin Nails,” but they said there is a vast difference being knowing and believing.

And, attorneys Greg Barnhart and Jack Scarola said, after becoming hooked by Big Tobacco’s decades-long misinformation campaign, Piendle, like hundreds of thousands of other smokers, discovered it isn’t easy to quit.

Defense attorneys Peter Henk, center, representing Philip-Morris, and Frank Kelly, right, also representing Philip-Morris, listen to Greg Barnhart, representing Charles Piendle's widow Margaret Elizabeth Piendle, present closing arguments to the jury and Circuit Judge Robin Rosenberg in a case against tobacco companies R.J. Reynolds and Philip-Morris at the Palm Beach County Courthouse in West Palm Beach Monday.

Defense attorneys Peter Henk, center, representing Philip-Morris, and Frank Kelly, right, also representing Philip-Morris, listen to Greg Barnhart, representing Charles Piendle's widow Margaret Elizabeth Piendle, present closing arguments to the jury and Circuit Judge Robin Rosenberg in a case against tobacco companies R.J. Reynolds and Philip-Morris at the Palm Beach County Courthouse in West Palm Beach Monday.

They made their claims at the conclusion of a month-long trial – the first of hundreds pending in Palm Beach County Circuit Court and an estimated 8,000 filed statewide seeking to hold Big Tobacco responsible for causing smoking-related diseases and death.

Taking their last shot at jurors before deliberations begin Tuesday, attorneys representing widow Liz Piendle and those representing tobacco giants R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris gave vastly different views of why Piendle didn’t quit until it was too late.

They also offered vastly different opinions about how much Liz Piendle deserves for losing her husband of 27 years, the man she described as the yang to her yin.

While insisting they are blameless for Piendle’s death, attorneys representing the tobacco companies said his widow deserves a maximum of $1.5 million. However, they also said Piendle should be held 75 percent responsible for his untimely death which would mean she would only receive $375,000.

Her attorneys, meanwhile, said she deserves as much as $23 million – $500,000 to $1 million for each of the 23 years she has had to live without him because his lungs and then his brain were destroyed by cancer. They also told jurors that the tobacco companies should be found 90 to 95 percent responsible which would mean she would get the majority of whatever they say she deserves.

And the $23 million could be just the beginning.

They are also asking the jury to find that the tobacco companies acted recklessly and intentionally hid the truth. If jurors agree, Liz Piendle would be entitled to punitive damages and her award would skyrocket. A separate trial would be held on punitive damages.

To win this round, attorneys for the tobacco companies have argued that since a landmark 1964 surgeon general’s report, it has been widely known that cigarettes are inherently dangerous. Piendle, like millions of others, should have quit, said attorney Peter Biersteker, who represents R.J. Reynolds.

However, Scarola said, tobacco companies thwarted medical experts by producing misleading advertising to persuade consumers, particularly young people, that smoking was “sexy, sophisticated and safe.”

Cigarette-makers are now trying to say hundreds of thousands of smokers, including President Barack Obama, are simply stupid for rejecting years of medical research that showed smoking kills, Scarola said.

To highlight what they called the misinformation campaign, he and Barnhart played clips of ads featuring sports greats, such as Frank Gifford, and cartoon television stars like Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble, crowing about the joys of smoking. They also ran news clips of tobacco executives insisting cigarettes were neither dangerous nor addictive and pledging to alert the American people if studies showed differently.

“It was Charlie’s choice to be stupid enough to believe us,” Scarola said, sarcastically summing up tobacco’s argument. “It was stupid for him to believe what we were telling him and everyone else for decades. He must have learned the truth despite our lies.”

So far, only 21 of the 8,000 cases that sprung from a 1994 court case have gone to trial. Tobacco companies have won three.

The cases were filed after the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 threw out a $145 billion verdict against the tobacco companies. However, the high court upheld the jury’s findings that cigarettes caused lung cancer and a variety of other diseases and that tobacco companies negligently concealed and omitted facts about the dangers of smoking.

The court ruled that Piendle and other smokers must file separate lawsuits to explain how they were uniquely impacted by cigarettes and the tobacco companies’ actions.

source: palmbeachpost.com

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