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Opening arguments given in Spring Hill man's case against tobacco companies

BROOKSVILLE — John Rizzuto walked slowly into Courtroom F and settled into a chair between his attorneys.

Two more members of his legal team sat behind him amid stacks of boxes and a large poster board still shrouded in plastic. Across the aisle, attorneys for the tobacco companies Rizzuto is suing readied their own materials.

Then the six people who will decide if the 66-year-old retired letter carrier deserves money from those companies filed into the jury box.

This moment Thursday morning was a long time coming.

Rizzuto 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.

This week, Circuit Judge Victor Musleh and attorneys took three days to whittle a jury pool of 300 to six members and an alternate.

In an hourlong opening statement, Tampa lawyer Brent Bigger explained why the companies should pay his client compensatory and punitive damages, even though Rizzuto was the one who put the cigarettes in his mouth for four decades.

"It's shared responsibility, there's no doubt it," Bigger said. "The only question is what portion belongs to the tobacco companies who created and designed nicotine-delivering devices that were marketed to ensnare teens into addictive substances, and then concealed the health consequences."

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 as the Engle case for lead plaintiff and Miami 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 against the industry that was later overturned on appeal.

The Florida Supreme Court refused in 2006 to reinstate the verdict, but the court permitted each of the Engle class members 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.

Bigger told jurors that Rizzuto started smoking regularly at age 13. He preferred L&Ms and Marlboro Reds and would smoke one to two packs a day.

Now the widowed grandfather suffers from severe emphysema and has one-third the lung capacity of a typical man his age and size, Bigger said. He needs oxygen at night and carries an inhaler.

"Changing sheets on the bed makes him short of breath," he said.

William Geraghty, an attorney for Philip Morris, portrayed Rizzuto as a man who knew the risks of smoking from the moment he took the first puff and who could have quit at any time.

Referring to large placards hoisted onto an easel, Geraghty compared the time line of Rizzuto's habit with historical developments in America.

Even before Rizzuto was born, cigarettes were called cancer sticks and coffin nails, and by the mid 1950s most people had heard that cigarettes caused lung cancer, Geraghty said.

Rizzuto was 16 in 1964 when the surgeon general issued a landmark report about cigarettes causing cancer and bronchitis.

Rizzuto quit for six weeks in 1984 and again for two weeks in the early 1990s when he was hospitalized with pneumonia. He continued to smoke against his doctor's warnings, Geraghty said. Finally, in 2000, he quit after being hospitalized for shortness of breath.

"For the first time in his life, Mr. Rizzuto is concerned about his health, so what does he do? He quits cold turkey, without any assistance and no withdrawal symptoms," Geraghty said. "Does that sound like someone who was terribly addicted? He enjoyed smoking cigarettes, and he wasn't ready to give up something that he enjoyed."

Opening arguments given in Spring Hill man's case against tobacco companies 08/15/13 [Last modified: Thursday, August 15, 2013 10:54pm]
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