A 77-year-old Daytona Beach woman has won $300,000 in what likely is the first verdict against a tobacco company in Central Florida out of thousands of suits filed statewide by ailing, longtime smokers.
A Volusia jury has decided that R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company is partly liable for the lung cancer suffered by Stella Koballa. A circuit judge will review the verdict at a future court hearing.
“We’re happy with the result and we feel this was a victory for Ms. Koballa,” said her attorney, Bill Ogle, whose Daytona Beach law firm, Mayfield & Ogle, is handling about 150 similar cases in Orange, Brevard and Volusia counties.
Ben Reid, an attorney for R.J. Reynolds, declined comment because a final ruling is pending.
Koballa and other longtime smokers were originally covered under a class-action lawsuit against the tobacco companies that resulted in a $145 billion jury award, the largest amount in punitive damages in U.S. history. The lead plaintiff was the late Dr. Howard Engle, a Miami pediatrician.
In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court threw out the Engle award, ruling that longtime smokers would have to file individual lawsuits against the cigarette makers. But the new lawsuits are allowed to use some of the Engle case evidence that tobacco companies had concealed — that smoking cigarettes is addictive and harmful to a smoker’s health.
After the Supreme Court ruling, more than 8,000 cases, now called the “Engle progeny,” were filed and are still wading through the Florida and federal courts.
Only 40 cases have reached juries, with about 27 verdicts awarding damages to the plaintiffs, said Edward L. Sweda, Jr., a senior attorney at the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, which tracks these cases.
Jury awards have ranged from $86,000 to more than $46 million.
“Overall, that is a pretty good track record,” said Sweda. “The larger awards, especially, show that juries have been outraged at the history of the conduct of tobacco companies.”
Meanwhile, the smaller awards and the cases that tobacco companies did win show how juries also have to weigh the personal decisions of the longtime smokers.
In the Volusia case, jurors made their decision on Thursday after learning in the three-week trial that Koballa had smoked for 45 years, starting with a pack of Lucky Strikes when she was 16. She testified that she was addicted to nicotine, ultimately quitting in 1996 when she was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Jurors saw advertising from the 1940s and 1950s, when Koballa first started smoking and cigarettes were considered glamorous. This was well before initial health studies of the 1950s linking cigarettes with lung diseases and the first Surgeon General reports.
The Volusia jury agreed that she was addicted to nicotine, which ultimately led to lung cancer, and valued her damages at $1 million. But in their final verdict, the jurors decided that Koballa was 70 percent liable for her cancer, while the tobacco company was 30 percent liable.
Such verdicts demonstrate the challenges of each individual smoker lawsuit, said Miles McGrane III, a Coral Beach attorney who won one of the first Engle-progeny cases, on behalf of his late father-in-law.
“The majority of these cases involve elderly smokers who started well before the health warnings came out,” McGrane said. “It becomes a more difficult decision for a jury in a case in which the smoker did know the health risks.”
“But the stakes are huge,” he said. “Imagine if all 8,000 plaintiffs won just $300,000. That’s $2.4 billion in verdicts against the tobacco companies.”
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