Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Tampa man driving ATV killed in Gibsonton crash on U.S. 41

    Public Safety

    GIBSONTON — A 24-year-old man driving an all-terrain vehicle died Monday afternoon in a crash on U.S. 41, the Florida Highway Patrol said.

  2. Questions about Russia chase Trump during first Israel visit


    JERUSALEM — President Donald Trump solemnly placed a note in the ancient stones of Jerusalem's Western Wall on Monday, sending a signal of solidarity to an ally he's pushing to work harder toward peace with the Palestinians. But his historic gesture- and his enthusiastic embrace of Israel's leader - were shadowed …

    President Donald Trump shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after making joint statements, Monday in Jerusalem. [AP photo]
  3. Data breach exposes 469 Social Security numbers, thousands of concealed weapons holders


    Social Security numbers for up to 469 people and information about thousands of concealed weapons holders were exposed in a data breach at Florida the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The breach, which the agency believes happened about two weeks ago, occurred in an online payments system, spokesperson …

    Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam on Monday that nearly 500 people may have had their Social Security numbers obtained in a data breach in his office.
[Times file photo]

  4. Trigaux: Can Duke Energy Florida's new chief grow a business when customers use less power?


    Let's hope Harry Sideris has a bit of Harry Houdini in him.

    Duke Energy Florida president Harry Sideris laid out his prioriities for the power company ranging from improved customer service to the use of more large-scale solar farms to provide electricity. And he acknowledged a critical challenge: People are using less electricity these days. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
  5. Editorial: Preserve wild Florida before it's too late


    The last dairy farm in Hillsborough County has milked its final cow, the pastures sold to developers who will build 1,000 new homes. The remnants of the last commercial citrus grove in Pinellas County, where the Sunshine State's famed industry began in the 19th century, were sold last year to make room for 136 homes. …

    As dairy farms and citrus groves disappear, much more needs to be done to avoid paving over Florida’s wild spaces.