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Hernando plaintiff testifies in case against tobacco companies

BROOKSVILLE — It was 1961.

John Rizzuto, 13 years old and living in Queens, N.Y., found a pack of cigarettes belonging to his parents. Unbeknownst to them, he opened it up, slipped one out and took off down the street by himself.

"That's where I did it," Rizzuto recalled. "I smoked it."

The next day — maybe two days later — he smoked another with his friends.

"I was able to feel like I belonged," he remembered. "It was just expected, I guess you could say."

The story that starts out like so many others also has a familiar ending: After decades of smoking, often one to two packs a day, Rizzuto developed severe emphysema. His lung capacity shrank to one-third of normal capacity. He needs oxygen at night. He carries an inhaler.

Rizzuto, now 66 years old and living in Spring Hill, filed suit against Philip Morris USA and Liggett Group in 2007, claiming they are partially to blame for his lung disease. Six years of legal wrangling followed. His trial began last week. On Wednesday, he took the stand for the first time.

In a soft, gravelly voice bearing traces of his New York upbringing, Rizzuto testified and was cross-examined all day about his decades of smoking, answering a barrage of questions about everything from his personal health and family history to his perception of smoking as a teenager.

Growing up in the late 1950s and early '60s, he saw people smoking all around him — his mother, father, brother, uncles, aunts, friends. It was rampant on TV and the silver screen.

"It was just the lifestyle," he said.

Over the years, Rizzuto tried to quit or cut down his smoking several times. Each time, he picked it back up.

He was finally successful in 2000, but it took a near disaster.

Rizzuto was lying in bed one night, unable to sleep. He was struggling to breathe. "I couldn't get the air in," he said.

His son eventually took him to Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point in Hudson.

He remembers trying to use the restroom.

"I took a couple of steps," he said. "I couldn't breathe."

He said it scared him — that he saw what the rest of his life might be like.

He hasn't smoked since.

Rizzuto is claiming a right to damages as a member of the so-called Engle class. In 1994, a class-action suit was certified in Miami that became known for its lead plaintiff, pediatrician Howard Engle.

An appeals court decided in 1996 that the class action could go forward, though only Florida smokers who came down with a cigarette-related disease before November of that year could be included. In 2000, the plaintiffs won $145 billion, later overturned on appeal. The Florida Supreme Court refused in 2006 to reinstate the verdict, but the court permitted members of the Engle class to file lawsuits individually.

Observers say Rizzuto's is the first case to go to trial in Hernando. The jury must decide if he was addicted and, if so, whether his chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, or COPD, was caused by that addiction.

In the cross-examination, William Geraghty, an attorney for Philip Morris, pointed out that Rizzuto smoked as a teenager, even though his father and brother had told him to stop. Geraghty also said Rizzuto smoked at school, even though it wasn't allowed. He displayed a copy of a surgeon general warning dating back to 1966 — one that Rizzuto recalled reading. He peppered Rizzuto with questions about how he was finally able to quit cold turkey and questioned him about a number of his health practices over the years.

"You never actually asked any of your doctors to help you quit smoking, did you?" Geraghty asked. "You told us earlier you never tried Nicorette gum; you never tried the nicotine patch. You never went to a stop-smoking clinic or class."

Danny Valentine can be reached at dvalentine@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.

Hernando plaintiff testifies in case against tobacco companies 08/21/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 21, 2013 11:23pm]

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