Vivian Wilkinson was a former bartender who passed away from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) after smoking cigarettes for more than 40 years. Kelley/Uustal attorney 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 Wilkinson’s death, 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.