The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued a decision today upholding a $28 million judgment against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company for damages sustained by an injured Connecticut smoker, Barbara Izzarelli, formerly of Norwich, CT. The appeals court also remanded the case for a further award of punitive damages.
A federal court jury had awarded Ms. Izzarelli $7.9 million after a 14-day trial in Bridgeport federal court in May 2010 before Federal District Court Judge Stefan Underhill. Judge Underhill awarded punitive damages in the amount of $3.9 million and prejudgment interest increased the total judgment to more than $28 million.
The case was the first smoker’s case to come to trial in Connecticut and was the first jury verdict ever returned against a tobacco company in New England history.
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Barbara Izzarelli, a longtime smoker of Salem cigarettes who developed cancer, received a total of $27.5 million dollars in her successful product liability lawsuit against the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. A federal judge awarded nearly $16 million in interest after she had already been awarded $4 million in punitive damages and an $8 million jury award. The jury’s verdict was believed to be the first successful product liability lawsuit in Connecticut by an individual plaintiff against a tobacco company.
Izzarelli’s attorney, David Golub, a partner at Silver Golub & Teitell, had served as lead private counsel for the State of Connecticut in its action against the tobacco industry. The Izzarelli legal team also included Jonathan Levine and Marilyn J. Ramos, both partners at Silver Golub & Teitell.
Connecticut’s leading role in the nationwide litigation and helping achieve the nationwide settlement was specifically recognized by a special panel of former attorneys general, which concluded that the contribution of Connecticut’s legal team to the national settlement was among the top five of the 57 states and other entities involved in that litigation. Connecticut stands to recover nearly $4 billion as a result of its team’s legal efforts.
Despite the large sum in the Izzarelli case, Golub has appealed U.S. District Court Judge Stefan Underhill’s punitive damages award of $4 million. He said the judge used common law to compute punitive damages. Under that approach, the punitive damages basically cover attorney fees and related costs. Golub argued that since the lawsuit centered on Connecticut product liability law, the state statute should govern damages. Under the statute, punitive damages can be double or triple compensatory damages if injuries are caused by recklessness.
“I had mixed feelings about the judge’s original award,” said Golub. “I didn’t agree with his interpretation of the statute because I think it deprived plaintiffs of the right to full punitive awards. In many cases, the judges’ interpretation would result in plaintiffs not even getting their attorney fees. However, I’m very pleased the judge awarded the maximum amount he could under his interpretation [of the statute] and affirmed the jury’s finding that R.J. Reynolds acted with reckless disregard for consumer safety.”
Izzarelli was in her early teens in the 1970s when she began smoking cigarettes and soon became hooked by the nicotine. She smoked heavily every day – all day – for more than 20 years.
In 1996, at age 36, she developed larynx cancer. The following year she underwent a total laryngectomy, followed by radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Today, she can no longer breathe through her mouth or nose and instead uses a tube in her throat. She has lost her sense of smell and can only eat soft foods.
Izzarelli brought the products liability claim in 1999, claiming that R.J. Reynolds continued to sell its products even after there was widespread knowledge that smoking could cause cancer. Specifically, the complaint alleged that R.J. Reynolds stated in 1954 that if someone could prove a specific ingredient in cigarettes caused cancer, it would remove that ingredient. Golub argued that even after the cancer link was established, R.J. Reynolds did not change the ingredients of its cigarettes.
The trial lasted a month, and the jury needed a day to reach its decision. The panel didn’t completely absolve the plaintiff. The total verdict was $13.6 million, but the jurors said Izzarelli was 42% at fault for smoking.
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