DEDHAM, Mass. (Legal Newsline) - A state court jury in Massachusetts has absolved R.J. Reynolds of all liability in the death of 54-year-old nurse Dawn O’Toole after lawyers for the tobacco industry giant stressed to jurors her habit of smoking was predicated on choice and she never really tried quitting.
“Mrs. O’Toole chose to smoke cigarettes, not because she couldn’t stop, but because she wanted to [smoke],” defense attorney Kevin D. Boyce of the New York-based firm of Jones Day told a Norfolk County Superior Court on March 27. “There wasn’t any credible evidence that Mrs. O’Toole could not stop smoking if she wanted to.”
The proceedings before Judge Elaine Buckley were webcast gavel-to-gavel by Courtroom View Network.
After more than 40 years of smoking Newport-brand cigarettes, O’Toole, a registered nurse with a background in respiratory therapy, died of lung cancer in 2012. Throughout the nearly two-week trial, attorneys on behalf of her daughter, Julie Lagadimas, argued she was the victim of “a dangerous cigarette design and a scheme to undermine evidence of smoking’s risks" - an alleged plot that helped keep her hooked on nicotine even after she joined the medical profession.
Jurors deliberated for more than six hours before returning a verdict in favor of Reynolds, which acquired original Newports maker Lorillard Tobacco Co. in 2015. In addition to Reynolds, the suit named New England grocery chain Big Y Foods, where O’Toole frequently made her cigarette purchases, as a defendant.
During closing arguments, Boyce made a point of telling jurors that O’Toole chose to continue smoking despite knowing the risks better than most, by virtue of her profession. He added alternative cigarette designs frequently alluded to throughout the proceedings by attorneys for her estate were no safer than the cigarettes she purchased and consumed every day.
“Even a product as dangerous as cigarettes — that cause cancer and addiction — can be rendered reasonably safe for use by a warning label,” he added of the health warning label that adorns every pack of Newports.
In seeking upwards of $1 million in total damages, O’Toole's family’s attorney, Gordon Rhea, argued during his closing argument that Lorillard knowingly manipulated the nicotine levels of its products in a scheme aimed at addicting more victims for the purposes of increasing the company’s profit margins.
He added internal documents left no doubt that the company could have marketed a cigarette with ultra-low nicotine and lower carcinogens, but consciously made the decision to go in the other direction and addict more smokers to its products.
“This was a business decision by Lorillard,” Rhea argued. “And rather than taking the step to make a safer design, [the company] decided to stick with what it had.”
Finally, Rhea told the court that the scheme to downplay the dangers of smoking was an industry-wide fraud perpetuated on the likes of his client, and by the time she realized how perilous smoking can truly be she was too addicted to the nicotine in cigarettes to quit or really do anything about it.
“What Lorillard had wanted to happen to its smokers, happened to her,” he said. “She was addicted. She couldn’t stop. Their plan worked.”
During opening arguments on March 14, Rhea’s co-counselor Andrew Rainer, of the Northeastern University School of Law's Public Health Advocacy Institute in Massachusetts, sounded that same theme.
“This case is basically about two things: a corporation that’s greedy and an addicted smoker,” he said. “The tobacco industry’s goal, through advertising, through a reassurance campaign, was to get customers for life. To get somebody addicted to their product who will keep using it their whole life.”
O’Toole was survived by her husband and three adult children.