A bladder cancer survivor won $5 million in punitive damages against R.J. Reynolds a day after a Florida state jury awarded the former cigarette smoker just over $5 million for injuries it found he suffered as a result of the tobacco giant concealing the dangers of smoking and causing his illness.
The jurors in state circuit court in Tampa returned verdicts below the $10 million in compensatory damages and $14 million to $20 million range on punitive damages that counsel for Joseph Rutkowski asked for, but they still decided R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. should pay millions and found the cigarette maker 90% responsible after apportioning responsibility between the parties.
Rutkowski’s case is one of thousands stemming from the landmark Engle class action against several tobacco companies. The Florida Supreme Court decertified the class in 2006 and overturned a $145 billion verdict, but it allowed up to 700,000 people who could have won judgments to rely on the jury’s findings to file suits of their own. These findings include conclusions that smoking causes certain diseases and that tobacco companies hid smoking’s dangers.
At the close of the trial’s initial phase, Rutkowski’s co-counsel Gary Paige of Gordon & Partners told the jury that Rutkowski developed a terrible disease as a direct result of R.J. Reynolds choosing for decades to lie about the dangers of smoking.
Rutkowski experienced immense suffering from his cancer, including surgeries, the removal of his bladder and prostate, urinating through a catheter in his stomach for decades, repeated urinary tract infections, having to wear diapers, and decades of sexual dysfunction.
Rutkowski was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 1993, seven years after he quit smoking — and the year before the CEOs of all the major cigarette companies famously appeared before Congress and testified that they didn’t believe cigarettes were addictive.
Paige said the broad societal acceptance of cigarettes continued for decades longer than it had to because of what started at an infamous Plaza Hotel meeting in 1953. There, the heads of all the major tobacco companies hatched a plot to deny then-new and alarming research linking cigarettes to health dangers, he said.
The campaign to muddy the waters continued over the years, Paige said, with the creation of groups such as the Tobacco Industry Research Council, later known as the Center for Tobacco Research, which he said paid doctors to conduct research downplaying or wholly disputing the harm cigarettes caused.
Arguing for Reynolds, Walker focused on several incidents that he contended showed Rutkowski’s smoking was not due to addiction.