Vivian Wilkinson was a former bartender who passed away from chronic obstructive
pulmonary disease (COPD) after smoking cigarettes for more than 40 years.
Eric Rosen has been representing Ms. Wilkinson’s children, who claim that Vivian
Wilkinson’s fatal disease resulted from an addiction to cigarettes
containing nicotine manufactured by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and
other cigarette manufacturers. The Plaintiff also claimed that R.J. Reynolds
engaged in a decades long conspiracy to conceal critical information about
the health effects and addictive nature of their products.
After a two and a half week trial starting on April 6, 2016, , jurors awarded
daughter Vivian and son William $1.5 million each. The jury also found
that R.J. Reynolds fraud and conspiracy were both a legal cause of Vivian
Wilkinson’s death and concluded that punitive damages were warranted
against the cigarette manufacturer. On April 22, jurors imposed a $10
million punitive damage verdict on R.J. Reynolds for its role in Vivian
boosting the total award to $13 million.
The case, however, was not easy. Just prior to trial, Defendant R.J. Reynolds
disclosed a surprise witness; a woman who worked with Vivian Wilkinson
in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She testified that Vivian Wilkinson
suffered from chronic shortness of breath, a hallmark symptom of COPD
and that she used inhalers regularly throughout the 1980s that she obtained
from customers who would visit the bar where they worked. R.J. Reynolds
capitalized on this evidence arguing that had Vivian Wilkinson been reasonable,
she would have seen a doctor and learned of her COPD caused by cigarette
smoking before May 5, 1990, the critical date for purposes of the statute
of limitations defense.
Drawing on evidence from Ms. Wilkinson’s own doctors, family and
medical records, Mr. Rosen argued that Vivian Wilkinson did not know she
had COPD before the critical date of May 5, 1990 or that she should have
known that she had COPD before that date. Acknowledging that Ms. Wilkinson
likely had the disease as far back as the 1980s, Rosen successfully argued
that having the disease alone did not mean that Ms. Wilkinson knew or
should have known she was suffering from COPD. Mr. Rosen brought forth
convincing evidence that patients modify their behavior during the early
and even late stages of COPD without concern for the symptoms or their
cause. Mr. Rosen also pointed out that R.J. Reynolds’ own CEOs and
executives publically denied that cigarette smoking caused emphysema/COPD
throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. Mr. Rosen argued that Vivian
Wilkinson, a consumer, should not be held to a higher standard that the
manufacturer’s own high level executives who denied the product
caused any harm. In light of this evidence, the jury sided with the victim’s
family and rejected Reynolds’ statute of limitations defense.
This is one of thousands of similar lawsuits in Florida against big tobacco
companies who are accused of producing addictive products and hiding their
many dangers from the public. While a class does not currently exist for
cigarette lawsuits, individual plaintiffs may collect compensation if
they can prove that the smokers at the center of their cases suffered
from a nicotine addiction that led to a smoking-related disease.
The family was represented by Eric Rosen, lead trial attorney from Kelley
Uustal. In what has been described as a rare event in tobacco litigation,
Mr. Rosen handled every aspect of trial by himself, from jury selection,
opening statements, calling each witness, arguing the law, and conducting
closing arguments. Mr. Rosen was supported at trial by Kim Wald, Esq.
also from Kelley Uustal.
The case was Turner v. R.J. Reynolds, case number
CACE07027976, in the 17th Judicial Circuit of Florida.
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