After a nine-year wait, the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company get the chance to seek compensation for the smoking-related death of Robert McCain Sr. McCain, a resident of Lakelend, Florida, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1992 and died from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in 2007 at age 67. McCain’s family attribute his lifelong addiction and death to cigarette companies that allegedly concealed the dangers of smoking.
On January 10, Attorney William Wichmann of Fort Lauderdale gave opening statements for the plaintiffs in a Polk County courthouse overseen by Circuit Judge Catherine Combee. McCain had his first cigarette in the 1950s at age 15 and favored popular brands, such as Camels, Pall Malls, and Kools. According to Wichmann, the Marine and Vietnam veteran smoked about two to three packs a day for five decades. McCain quit smoking for five months in the early 1990s, but resumed the habit until his death.
The McCain case stems from a 1994 class action suit filed by pediatrician Howard Engle, who wanted to hold cigarette makers accountable for using nicotine despite having reports of its negative health effects for decades. Although a jury sided with the plaintiffs and awarded $145 million, the Florida Supreme Court later decertified the class action suit in 2006. Thousands of plaintiffs had to refile their claims as individual lawsuits, and the resulting cases are known as “Engle progeny.” McCain’s son-in-law, Gary Russell, reached a settlement in a similar suit against Philip Morris tobacco company in 2015.
But defense lawyer Jose Isasi questions whether the plaintiffs can prove the cigarette company is at fault. McCain was cancer-free after successful lung surgery and knew about the effects of smoking long before he died, as the mandatory surgeon general’s warning has appeared on cigarettes since 1965. As Isasi points out, McCain chose to resume smoking and could have quit again anytime.
The defense also suggested that McCain’s daughter had the Lakeland man’s death certificate modified to include lung cancer, so his family could profit from the lawsuit. The original certificate attributed his death to complications from COPD and pneumonia. According to Isasi, the family filed the lawsuit eight days after McCain’s daughter saw advertisements about potential claims against tobacco companies. Wichmann claims the certificate was altered in relation to McCain’s VA benefits.
Lawsuits against tobacco companies aren’t black and white, which is why Engle progeny litigation was created. While cigarette makers are sometimes found liable, there are some cases where smokers have ample knowledge and opportunity to make personal decisions about smoking. The burden rests on the plaintiffs to prove the cigarette company behaved negligently and caused lasting damage to their health.