Manatee smoker is suing tobacco companies

Jimmy Willis spoke to the jury with an electrolarynx pressed against the hole in his throat to blame two tobacco companies for his cancers.

“I would say, ‘Take a look at me,'” said Wills, a 30-year smoker from Bradenton who is frail with illness. “I have cancer. They lied about what it would cause you to get.”

Willis is suing tobacco companies for millions because he has cancer he said was caused by smoking.

His four-week civil trial in Manatee County is among the first of about 8,000 cases statewide to take another look at an old legal battle over whether big tobacco companies or smokers themselves are responsible for health problems caused by cigarettes.

The state Supreme Court threw out a record $145 billion class-action verdict against big tobacco companies more than two years ago, and Willis is the first in Manatee and Sarasota counties to file his case under new rules that can benefit smokers in their lawsuits.

The high court in 2006 rejected the punitive damages awarded by a jury as excessive in the landmark case, and ruled that smokers like Willis or their survivors must prove their cases individually.

That has given cigarette makers like R.J. Reynolds Co. and Philip Morris USA a chance to argue that Willis and others who sue knew smoking was bad for them as far back as 1965, when government first warned of the dangers of smoking.

In the Willis case, tobacco lawyers said he never gave serious effort to quit his 1.5-pack a day habit until his surgery for laryngeal cancer in 1993.

But the high court ruling still allows smokers to use the jury’s conclusions from the class-action case: that tobacco companies knowingly sold dangerous products and concealed the health risks of smoking for years.

Willis’ attorney stressed those findings in closing arguments Wednesday, and they are proving to be a powerful part of suits against tobacco companies across Florida.

A majority of the juries in 13 other cases across the state have awarded millions of dollars in damages against the tobacco companies.

The jury in Willis’ case will deliberate this week, after Willis’ attorney asked them to award about $14 million for Willis’ pain and suffering, and punitive damages on top of that.

Willis’ attorney asked the jury to leave behind what they know about the dangers of cigarettes today, and to travel back in time to the 1940s, when tobacco companies gave cigarettes to troops and lung cancer rates began to increase.

Hendrik Uiterwyk showed a graphic correlating Willis’ cigarette brand choice starting in the 1950s with advertising images, like a group of smiling people relaxing near a mountain stream or a smoking Santa Claus.

“They knew exactly what they were doing,” Uiterwyk told the jury. Still, Willis admitted he was 20 percent responsible for continuing to smoke.

In 1964, when the U.S. Surgeon General and scientists linked cigarettes to lung cancer, the tobacco companies chose to cover up the dangers they knew about and “go on a campaign of lies and deceits,” Uiterwyk said. “They chose their pockets, they chose greed.”

But Philip Morris attorney Walt Cofer urged the jury to consider the choices Willis made. Willis was not a regular smoker until 18 years old. And his attempts to quit — the first coming right after warning labels went on cigarette packs in the mid-1960s — were more an indication of Willis thinking, “It’s not going to happen to me.”

“His choice to smoke was exactly that, a free and unencumbered choice, free of addiction,” Philip Morris attorney Walt Cofer said. “Had he really made up his mind to, he could have quit.”

The jury is expected to issue a verdict this week.


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