Make us your home page
Instagram

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

Loading...
  1. Bucs journal: Kicker Nick Folk has up and downs against Jaguars

    Bucs

    JACKSONVILLE — If the Bucs had hoped for a drama-free night in their kicking game, they'll have to wait another week.

    Bucs kicker Nick Folk celebrates one of his two made field goals against the Jaguars, but he also misses a field goal and has an extra point blocked.
  2. Late night update: Second wave follows Tropical Storm Harvey

    Hurricanes

    UPDATE: At 11 p.m. the National Hurricane Center said a hurricane hunter plane had determined that Tropical Storm Harvey had formed with sustained winds of 40 mph.

    Three tropical waves are expected to strengthen as they move across the Atlantic Ocean. [Courtesy of the National Hurricane Center]
  3. Stealth anti-Jack Latvala group tied to Adam Putnam campaign

    Blogs

    Politico reports:

     A longtime political consultant for Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam is behind a website calling one of his rivals in the race, state Sen. Jack Latvala, a “liberal.”

  4. Council gives in to pension dispute with St. Pete firefighters

    Local Government

    ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council was forced to consider its first labor dispute in years Thursday when it gave the firefighters union most of the pension enhancements it has long asked for.

    The firefighters’ union won a pension victory at Thursday’s City Council meeting. [SCOTT KEELER    |      TIMES]
  5. Bucs top Jaguars behind strong first half

    Bucs

    JACKSONVILLE

    There is a reason why the air in Tampa Bay is filled with playoff talk. If Thursday night's 12-8 Bucs preseason win over the Jaguars is any indication, it's also going to be filled with footballs thrown by quarterback Jameis Winston.

    Doug Martin gets the Bucs’ only touchdown  on a 2-yard run, squeaking past linebacker Telvin Smith in the first quarter. He has five carries for 30 yards.