Cigarette maker R.J. Reynolds is liable for approximately $40 million in damages to the widow of Matthew Buonomo, a long-time smoker who passed away in 2008 from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The six-year legal battle finally came to a close when the courts ruled in favor of his surviving family and denied R.J. Reynolds’s final attempt in the Fourth District Court of Appeal to avoid the judgment, which was originally rendered in August 2010.
Matthew Buonomo began smoking when he was only 13 years old and became addicted to nicotine by the time he left to fight in Korea at the age of 18. While fighting in the Korean War, he continued to smoke the packs of cigarettes that were provided in his rations. By the time he returned to the United States, he was smoking up to four packs of cigarettes a day.
According to the lawsuit, Mr. Buonomo tried to quit smoking many times throughout the years, including after the publication of the Surgeon General’s report on the dangers of cigarette smoking. The cigarette companies, however, engaged in a ploy to hide the harmful effects of smoking by adding filters to their products, leading consumers to believe that the filters would remove the harmful substances present in cigarette smoke. To further enhance the “illusion of filtration,” cigarette makers even explored ways to make the filters appear to change colors in order to fool smokers. Indeed, Mr. Buonomo assumed that the yellowed filters he showed his wife were evidence that the filters effectively made for a safer cigarette. It was only when Mr. Buonomo was hospitalized in 1993 that he finally quit smoking.
Mr. Buonomo filed the original lawsuit against R.J. Reynolds a year after his hospitalization in order to pursue compensation for the company’s deceptive marketing. He passed away on the eve of the trial at the age of 80. The lawsuit was continued on his behalf by his surviving wife, Connie, who testified during the trial along with the couple’s two daughters. After the jury found R.J. Reynolds to be 77.5% responsible, Mrs. Buonomo was granted $4.1 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages in October 2010.
“After eight years of litigation and six years of appeals, the tobacco companies finally face judgment for what they did to Matthew Buonomo,” said John Uustal, partner with law firm Kelley/Uustal and lead counsel on the case. Attorneys Todd McPharlin and Eric Rosen served as co-counsel.