Trial begins against tobacco companies
Twenty years after snuffing out his last cigarette, quitting his three-pack-a-day habit cold turkey, Miami lawyer John Lukacs learned he had bladder cancer.
Ten years after that, doctors had to remove Lukacs' tongue and the bottom of his mouth because of cancer, rendering the 77-year-old man unable to speak, eat or drink for the past year.
"We will prove ... that cigarette smoking is so harmful, even if you quit, 20 years or more later it never lets you off the hook," a lawyer for Lukacs told a jury in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court on Wednesday.
"The damage done to your DNA can still shorten your life and destroy your golden years. This is what happened to John Lukacs," Philip Gerson said during opening statements in a trial against three of the country's biggest tobacco companies.
Lukacs must prove to the jury that smoking cigarettes for 30 years caused his two types of cancer. The tobacco companies plan to present evidence that Lukacs' cancers could have been caused by a number of other factors, including pollution, a virus and old age, rather than cigarettes, Brown & Williamson lawyer Gordon Smith told the jury.
"In the end, the evidence will show that the choice to smoke or not smoke, to quit or not quit, was the responsibility of Mr. Lukacs," Smith said.
Lukacs is one of the estimated 500,000 to 700,000 Floridians who smoked and got sick, thereby qualifying to be a member of a class-action case against Big Tobacco. His trial is part of the third phase of a class action that began in 1994.
In the first phase, a different jury in Miami said the nation's five top cigarette companies sold a product that causes cancer. Two years ago, that same jury said the companies should pay the class members $145 billion in punitive damages. It was the largest damage award in history.
The tobacco companies have appealed that verdict. If the smokers win, every Floridian considered to be a part of the class action would be entitled to go to court to try to prove that smoking caused a particular sickness, and to ask for a portion of the $145 billion.
But it could be years before the appeals process is complete. Lukacs, who Gerson says "probably will not live to see another Christmas," wanted his day in court before he died.
Last month, over the tobacco companies' objections, the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Miami granted the dying man his wish.
The verdict in the Lukacs trial will be put aside until the appeal of the $145 billion verdict is resolved. But his trial will allow lawyers for the smokers to test some of their strategy for the thousands of individual cases that could follow.
Lukacs, thin, bald, bespectacled and wearing a patch over his right eye because he now cannot close it, sat in the front of the courtroom next to his wife and another of his lawyers, Miles McGrane, who is also his son-in-law.
Lukacs started smoking in 1943, the year he enlisted in the Navy. He became a fighter pilot at a time when tobacco slogans were engrained in the American psyche and smoking was glamorized in advertising, Gerson said.
"Military pilots were an elite group," he said. "They are all together all the time. The other pilots smoked. Celebrities of the day smoked. Athletes smoked and John Lukacs smoked cigarettes, too."
Tobacco lawyers argued tobacco advertising could not sway a man like Lukacs.
"John Lukacs is a fine man," said Smith. "He's a well-educated man, an independent man. He had a very successful law practice. He was a man capable of making decisions for himself in the face of the knowledge of the risk posed by smoking. He was not under the control of the tobacco companies or somebody who did anything an ad said to do."
Lukacs smoked mostly Chesterfields, made by Liggett, and Lucky Strikes, made by Brown & Williamson. Occasionally he tried other brands, including Pall Malls and Marlboros manufactured by Philip Morris. Those are the three cigarette makers he now wants to pay him for "suffering every day," Gerson said.
Lukacs decided to quit in 1971 because he didn't want his children to smoke, Gerson said.
Three times in the mid-1990s, Lukacs saw a doctor about a hard, white spot on his tongue. Three times a biopsy of the spot tested negative for cancer, but the doctors suggested removing that piece of the tongue as a preventative measure.
Lukacs decided not to have it removed, Gerson said.
The tobacco lawyers pounced upon this. "He weighed the options and took the risk," Smith said.
A fourth biopsy tested positive for cancer, finally prompting Lukacs to have the surgery.