“NYT: Jury Clears Tobacco Company in Ex-Smoker’s Suit”
New York Times, January 31, 1993
BELLEVILLE, Ill., Jan. 30— A jury in this St. Louis suburb has found that neither the R. J. Reynolds Company nor the tobacco industry as a whole is responsible for the lung cancer in a 51-year-old former cigarette smoker who is expected to die of the disease in the next few months.
The verdict, reached Friday in St. Clair County Circuit Court, came in the nation’s first trial of a liability lawsuit by an ailing smoker against the industry since the United States Supreme Court ruled last year that the warning labels on cigarette packs did not shield tobacco manufacturers from such suits.
Among the lawsuits permitted by the Supreme Court’s ruling are those that assert a conspiracy among tobacco companies to misrepresent or conceal the truth about smoking and health.
It was just such a lawsuit that had been filed by the plaintiff here, Charles Kueper of Cahokia, Ill., whose lawyer argued that the industry had concealed research data about smoking’s hazards while producing advertising that was misleading, even fraudulent.
But Mr. Kueper, who began smoking in the fifth grade and continued for almost four decades, acknowledged in his own testimony three weeks ago that his family and his doctors had warned him several times over the years to give up his habit. As a result, he testified, he had at least some awareness that smoking posed a danger. This point proved crucial in the outcome of his lawsuit. ‘Chose to Smoke’
“The ultimate issue in this case,” Paul Crist, a lawyer for R. J. Reynolds, said during closing arguments on Thursday, “is whether or not someone who chose to smoke despite warnings over 20 years and withstood warnings from family and friends ought to be able to come in here and say, ‘Give me damages.’ ”
The 12 jurors, 7 of whom are smokers, deliberated for 14 hours before agreeing with Mr. Crist. “On the whole the jury decided that if he wanted to smoke, it was his free choice,” said Ed Ratka, the jury’s foreman, who is a cigar smoker. Mr. Kueper was not in court when the verdict was read, but his lawyer responded with anger at the defendants. “It’s almost impossible to fight the power of a multinational corporation,” the lawyer, Bruce N. Cook, told reporters. “But eventually we’re going to stop them. They’re no better than the Colombian drug lords.”
“Mr. Kueper, a former member of the Army Special Forces and later a truck driver, smoked as many as two packs of Winston, R.J. Reynolds’ flagship filter brand.”
“During the trial, which lasted 10 weeks, Mr. Kueper testified that he had tried to stop smoking on a number of occasions but had been unable to break the habit until late 1990, when doctors told him not to smoke around his wife, who was recuperating from surgery.”
“A few months later, in March 1991, he was found to be suffering from lung cancer. His doctors do not expect him to live beyond the spring.”
“His lawyer, Bruce N. Cook, acknowledged during the trial that his client, Kueper, was partly to blame for his illness but said the tobacco industry nonetheless had played a big role in it through advertising that sought not only to retain smokers but also to get young people to take up the habit.”
“Mr. Cook said R. J. Reynolds and the company’s co-defendant, the Tobacco Institute, a trade group, had shown an “utter indifference to the suffering of others” and should be severely punished. In closing arguments Cook asked the jury to award Mr. Kueper $48 million in damages. “Do us all a favor,” he said, “and put them out of business.” But in the end, the industry prevailed.
“As we have seen repeatedly in other trials,” John Strauch, R. J. Reynolds’s chief lawyer in smoking-and-health litigation, said after the verdict had been announced, “The core issue in these cases is personal responsibility for one’s own conduct and choices.””