North Carolina is the site of many tobacco-based industries, including giants Lorillard (Greensboro) and R.J. Reynolds (Winston-Salem). While these industries have in some ways benefited the local economies, they have also resulted in countless people nationwide contracting serious and often fatal illnesses. What’s worse, for a long time, these companies concealed the extent to which their products were harmful.
It’s for this reason tobacco companies have been the subject of thousands of lawsuits from former smokers and relatives of those who died after suffering a smoking-related disease.
Just last year, the North Carolina Attorney General announced the state would be receiving a total of $211 million from tobacco companies (R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard) for smoking-related health care costs among taxpayers.
Our Winston-Salem wrongful death attorneys know that lawsuits against these firms continue to result in large damage awards to plaintiffs across the country. This is particularly true in the “Engle progeny” cases out of Florida. The “Engle” case was a former class action lawsuit resulting in a $145 billion verdict for former smokers and their families. However, that ruling was later de-certified, meaning plaintiffs had to go back to trial, though they would not have to prove cigarettes are dangerous or that defendant companies actively concealed this information for decades.
Still, that doesn’t make winning a case easy. One still has to go toe-to-toe with some of the best corporate defense lawyers to prove causation.
The recent case of Aycock v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, reveals why that’s not always so easy.
Plaintiff was married to a smoker for 50 years before he died in 1996, reportedly of lung cancer that had metastasized to his brain. An Engle progeny case, the lawsuit went to trial after many starts and stops in 2012.
A jury heard the evidence. Decedent smoked up to four packs a day, every day until his death.
His widow was awarded nearly $6 million.
However, defendant tobacco company appealed, arguing the court should never have suppressed evidence of decedent’s history of alcohol abuse and the role that may have played in causing his illness.
The court previously held the only reference to plaintiff’s alcohol would be in terms of how it affected the marriage (as it was relevant to the loss of consortium claim).
However, the federal appellate court found more evidence should have been revealed to the jury. Problematically for plaintiff, the family had refused a biopsy after decedent’s death, which would have definitively proven cause of death as cancer. Also, the lack of an autopsy meant expert witnesses were precluded from testifying as to the role alcohol played in his death.
The appeals panel ruled it was improper to withhold such information from the jury, and therefore the case was remanded to trial.
This is yet one more set back for a widow who has waited years for justice. While evidence of decedent’s alcohol abuse is unlikely to mean a different verdict will be reached, it is possible damages could be reduced.
In these kinds of complex product liability cases, it’s important to have an attorney fighting aggressively for your best interests.
Contact our North Carolina personal injury lawyers at Lee Law Offices today by calling 800-887-1965.
Aycock v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Oct. 16, 2014, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit
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