Smoker lawsuit tried in Tampa
TAMPA -- Jury selection began Monday in what is apparently the first smoker's lawsuit against tobacco manufacturers ever to go to trial in a Tampa Bay area courtroom.
The plaintiff is a Temple Terrace man whose wife died in 1995. He blames her death on her decades-old habit of smoking up to two packs a day of Carltons, Winstons and Pall Malls.
Suzanne M. Jones, a native of Lakeland, began smoking in the 1940s. The housewife and mother of one son continued to smoke even after a diagnosis of an aggressive form of lung cancer in December 1994. She died eight months later, at 63.
Defendants Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. deny any liability for Jones' death. They say that Jones chose to smoke. They contend she died from an abdominal tumor not caused by her smoking.
Robert R. Jones is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages on behalf of his wife's estate.
The case could take anywhere from two to four months. The length of the trial prompted many prospective jurors to say Monday that serving for so long would cause them a hardship. Opening statements could come on Thursday.
In defending themselves in Hillsborough County, the tobacco companies are exhibiting some of the same litigation tactics that have made them feared opponents in courtrooms across the country.
They are represented by a half-dozen attorneys, versus the single attorney for Jones' husband. They have entered objections to scores of planned exhibits. They have asked the judge for orders forbidding the plaintiff from referring to them as the "tobacco industry," and to forbid mention of some of the defense lawyers' hometowns -- apparently so they aren't portrayed as carpetbaggers.
Jones' lawyer, Howard Acosta of St. Petersburg, declined comment for this story, as did a lawyer for Brown & Williamson. A lawyer for R.J. Reynolds said its corporate representative would be available for an interview later this week.
The recent settlements that tobacco companies reached with Florida and other states over Medicaid costs did not preclude other types of tobacco lawsuits.
Nor did the class-action case in Miami that last month produced a $145-billion punitive damage award -- a bill that some observers say might never be paid. Although Jones could have participated in that case on behalf of his wife, he decided to pursue litigation on his own.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ralph Steinberg is presiding over Jones' trial. He said it was the first such tobacco trial in Hillsborough County. Lawyers familiar with local tobacco litigation say they know of no other in Pinellas County or the North Suncoast.
Acosta has at least two tobacco product-liability cases coming up for trial in Pinellas.