Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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 or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.

Hernando plaintiff testifies in case against tobacco companies 08/21/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 21, 2013 10:23pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. GOP's new repeal bill would likely leave millions more uninsured, analyses suggest


    WASHINGTON — The latest Republican bid to roll back the Affordable Care Act would likely leave millions of currently insured Americans without health coverage in the coming decades, and strip benefits and protections from millions more, a growing number of independent studies suggest.

    Vice President Mike Pence listens as President Donald Trump talks to reporters about the Graham-Cassidy health care bill during a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi at the Palace Hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, in New York. [Evan Vucci | Associated Press]
  2. Mueller casts broad net in requesting extensive records from Trump White House


    WASHINGTON — The special counsel investigating Russian election meddling has requested extensive records and email correspondence from the White House, covering the president's private discussions about firing his FBI director and his response to news that the then-national security adviser was under …

    In a photograph provided by the Russian foreign ministry, President Donald Trump meets with Sergei Lavrov, left, the Russian foreign minister, and Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, May 10, 2017. Special counsel Robert Mueller is interested in this meeting, where Trump said dismissing FBI Director James Comey had relieved "great pressure" on him, the New York Times reported on Sept. 20. [Russian Foreign Ministry via  New York Times]
  3. 'We will find our island destroyed': Hurricane Maria demolishes Puerto Rico


    SAN JUAN — Sleepless Puerto Ricans awoke Wednesday knowing to expect a thrashing from the most ferocious storm to strike the island in at least 85 years. They met nightfall confronting the ruin Hurricane Maria left behind: engorged rivers, blown-out windows, sheared roofs, toppled trees and an obliterated electric …

    Rescue vehicles from the Emergency Management Agency stand trapped under an awning during the impact of Hurricane Maria, after the storm  hit the eastern region of the island, in Humacao, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. The U.S. National Hurricane Center says Maria has lost its major hurricane status, after raking Puerto Rico. But forecasters say some strengthening is in the forecast and Maria could again become a major hurricane by Thursday. [Carlos Giusti | Associated Press]
  4. Obamacare repeal bill offers flexibility and uncertainty


    The latest Republican proposal to undo the Affordable Care Act would grant states much greater flexibility and all but guarantee much greater uncertainty for tens of millions of people.

  5. Manafort offered to give Russian billionaire 'private briefings' on 2016 campaign, report says


    Less than two weeks before Donald Trump accepted the Republican presidential nomination, his campaign chairman offered to provide briefings on the race to a Russian billionaire closely aligned with the Kremlin, the Washington Post reports.

    Paul Manafort, then Donald Trump's campaign chairman, talks to reporters on the floor of the Republican National Convention at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. [Associated Press]