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Tobacco lawsuit now in hands of jurors

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. should pay cancer-stricken Joann Karbiwnyk at least $400,000 for producing unsafe cigarettes and failing to warn her of their dangers, her attorney argued.

A jury of four women and two men was asked to award the 59-year-old Orange Park mortgage loan processor, who has lung and brain cancer, $200,000 for past damages, $200,000 in future damages and significant but unspecified punitive damages.

"You don't have to blow up the company. There just has to be a message," Norwood "Woody" Wilner said Wednesday in closing arguments as he walked over and rested his hand on Karbiwnyk's shoulder.

The jury deliberated for less than an hour before recessing for the night. It began considering the case late Wednesday afternoon after hearing more than three weeks of testimony and five hours of closing arguments.

When setting an amount for punitive damages, Wilner told jurors to consider RJR Nabisco's Winston-Salem, N.C.-based tobacco division is worth $2.7-billion.

But Ted Grossman, an attorney for the nation's second-largest cigarette maker, said the company should not be held liable because Karbiwnyk cannot prove Reynolds cigarettes caused her cancer.

"The plaintiffs have failed to meet every one of their burdens," Grossman said. "They haven't even got to square one."

He mentioned the polluted environment where she grew up, a family history of cancer, her use of hormones and alcohol, and the high rate of lung cancer in the Jacksonville area.

"It is impossible for them to meet that burden with this medical history," he said.

Wilner told jurors that Reynolds produced the Winston and Salem Light cigarettes that Karbiwnyk smoked for nearly three decades before quitting in 1984. She developed lung cancer 11 years later. Her cancer, which spread to her brain, is now in remission.

"The situation JoAnn is in right now is grave uncertainty," her attorney said. "The odds are bad, but she has a lot of hope."

Reynolds doesn't believe Karbiwnyk made the wrong decision to begin smoking in high school and continue the habit as she grew older, Grossman said.

"That was her choice, and that was okay. But when you make a choice, that doesn't give you a right to file a lawsuit later," Grossman said.

Karbiwnyk claims Reynolds failed to warn and provide adequate information about the dangers of its products, although both medical researchers and tobacco companies established a link between smoking and cancer in the 1950s.

But Grossman said Karbiwnyk heard the warnings later and continued to smoke.

"People in this society are given an opportunity to choose, and they make their choices," Grossman argued. "Ms. Karbiwnyk made a choice. We can't turn every case of cancer into a lawsuit."

Wilner accused the company of covering up dangers, trying to place blame on other factors and creating doubts in the minds of smokers.

This is Wilner's third tobacco trial in Jacksonville on behalf of smokers who developed cancer.

Last year, he won a $750,000 verdict for Grady Carter from Brown & Williamson. That case is on appeal. Earlier this year, he lost a suit brought by the family of the late Jean Connor, who died of lung cancer, against Reynolds.