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His wife died; his grief lingers

A New Port Richey man testifies that cigarettes robbed his wife of life and his family of closeness.

The husband of a woman who smoked for nearly 40 years broke down on the witness stand Monday while describing the end of their 30-year marriage as his wife's cancer spread from her lungs to her other organs.

Ralph Della Vecchia wiped away tears several times as he testified on his wife's damage claim in a landmark case by an estimated 500,000 sick Florida smokers seeking billions of dollars from the tobacco industry.

Still grieving seven months after the death of his wife, Angie, the New Port Richey man mentioned the spot of cancer found on her lung X-ray in 1997 when she developed a persistent cough that he suspected was pneumonia.

She quit smoking to qualify for surgery, her tumor was removed and she resumed smoking within three months. Sixteen months after the lung surgery, she suffered a seizure while driving. The cancer had spread to her brain.

"She was having seizure after seizure. She was having seizures every day," Della Vecchia said, describing his wife's final year.

After a while, she couldn't talk, suffered paralysis and died last July at age 53.

"I don't want to stay in the house," Della Vecchia testified of his life now. He was always a bowler but now "I'm there like 24 hours a day it seems like."

His close family is together physically but divided by grief.

Although his daughter's family moved in when his wife got sick, he said: "I don't pay too much attention to my grandkids. I do, but not as much as I would like to. And my daughter and my son, they sort of hibernate."

Mrs. Della Vecchia started smoking as a seventh-grader at age 11 and worked up to a two-packs-a-day habit. Della Vecchia, 64, quit smoking in 1977 after angina attacks, and he wanted her to quit, but Mrs. Della Vecchia couldn't. She told him, "I tried. I tried."

On cross-examination, industry attorney Anthony Upshaw focused on Mrs. Della Vecchia's attempts to quit and portrayed them as halfhearted. But Della Vecchia said, "I believe she tried. She really tried."

Attorneys on both sides made references to Della Vecchia's "bullheadedness" during questioning, because he acknowledged he was not sympathetic about his wife's inability to quit smoking. Della Vecchia said he was able to quit smoking when he put his mind to it.

Mrs. Della Vecchia died three weeks after the jury hearing her husband's claim for damages ruled the tobacco industry fraudulently conspired to make a dangerous and defective product.

The jury already has heard the life stories of two smokers with cancer, Inglis nurse Mary Farnan, whose lung cancer has spread to her brain, and Orlando clock maker Frank Amodeo, who has throat cancer.

The defendants are R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Philip Morris Inc., Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., Lorillard Tobacco Co., Liggett Group Inc., the Council for Tobacco Research and the Tobacco Institute.

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