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R.J. Reynolds Gets Judgment for Ex-Smoker Overturned on Appeal

Nov. 25, 2022, 4:32 PM

A trial court shouldn’t have let a former smoker’s claims against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. go to a jury because the man failed to show the alleged defects and lack of warnings caused his breathing problems, a Florida appeals court ruled.

Precedent in the state has established a standard that the injury must have “more likely than not” resulted from negligence or a defective product design for the plaintiff to succeed, the Florida First District Court of Appeal said Nov. 23.

Roosevelt Gordon alleged he smoked Reynolds-made cigarettes from 1954 to 2018.

He alleged flue-cured tobacco, which made the cigarettes inhalable, and nicotine manipulation were defects that caused his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to the court. He also blamed a lack of warnings before 1969.

Reynolds asked the trial court for judgment in its favor after Gordon presented evidence on his negligence and strict liability claims. But the trial court sent the case to the jury, which found in favor of Gordon.

Gordon died shortly afterwards, and his daughter appealed.

Gordon’s evidence resembles a “relaxed” standard for proximate causation that the Florida Supreme Court rejected, the appeals court said.

He presented “no evidence” that Reynolds’ lack of warnings before 1969 caused his COPD, the court said, particularly in light of evidence that he didn’t read the warnings once they started appearing.

The cigaretts’ inhalability was not a defect, the appeals court said. “Cigarettes are made to be inhaled and to contain nicotine,” it said. “Had the cigarettes not been inhalable or contained no nicotine, to the typical smoking consumer that would be a ‘design defect.’”

Nor could Gordon’s experts testify to “any probative linkage” between nicotine manipulation and his COPD, the court said.

Judge Bradford L. Thomas wrote the opinion, which Chief Judge Lori S. Rowe and Judge Robert E. Long Jr. joined.

Tein Malone PLLC represented Gordon’s daughter. Moore, Hill & Westmoreland PA, Hill Ward Henderson, and Jones Day represented Reynolds.

The case is R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Nelson, 2022 BL 420737, Fla. Dist. Ct. App., 1st Dist., No. 1D21-2549, 11/23/22.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martina Barash in Washington at mbarash@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Carmen Castro-Pagán at ccastro-pagan@bloomberglaw.com