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Crime & Courts

Smoker Wins $8 Million Verdict

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- A Connecticut smoker who developed larynx cancer has won $8 million in a lawsuit against a tobacco company, the first such jury verdict in New England, her attorney said Thursday.

David Golub, attorney for Barbara Izzarelli of Norwich, said Thursday a federal jury in Bridgeport made the award late Wednesday against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. after a two-week trial. He said a judge will decide additional punitive damages next month which could bring the award to $24 million.

"I'm very happy for Barbara Izzarelli, who is a remarkable woman who has overcome remarkable adversities," Golub said.

David Howard, spokesman for R.J. Reynolds, said the company was disappointed and plans to appeal.

"We're confident in our case," Howard said.

Izzarelli, who is 49 and smoked Salem cigarettes for more than 25 years, underwent surgery at 36 that resulted in the removal of her larynx. She must breath through a hole in her throat and has no sense of smell, and can only eat soft foods, Golub said.

It was the first smoker's case to come to trial in Connecticut and the first jury verdict against a tobacco company in New England, Golub said.

"I do think people will bring more cases now," Golub said.

Tobacco companies have downplayed the significance of verdicts against them in recent years in Florida as an aberration, but the verdict in Connecticut shows tobacco firms will be held liable around the country, said Dr. K. Michael Cummings, senior research scientist at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo and the head of the New York State quitline. He testified as an expert in the Connecticut and Florida cases.

"This unanimous verdict in Connecticut with its substantial damages and punitive damages award should send shivers down the tobacco companies' CEO's spines," Cummings said in a statement.

In February, a judge in Florida reduced $300 million in damages awarded to a smoker against Philip Morris USA to nearly $39 million, concluding a jury was moved by emotion rather than hard evidence. The $300 million had been the highest damage award among thousands of lawsuits filed by Florida smokers against tobacco companies.

The lawsuits were filed after the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 threw out a $145 billion class-action jury award for all Florida smokers, by far the highest punitive damage award in U.S. history. The court said each smoker's case had to be decided individually, but smoker's don't have to individually prove key findings of the original jury, that tobacco companies knowingly sold dangerous products and hid smoking risks from the public.

The jury in Connecticut held that the Salem cigarettes made by R.J. Reynolds were unreasonably dangerous and defectively designed and that the company had acted with reckless disregard for the safety of consumers and should be required to pay punitive damages, Golub said. Evidence in the trial established that Reynolds had undertaken a campaign in the early 1970s to market Salems to minors in order to establish a long-term customer base and had designed the cigarettes with enough nicotine above the threshold for addiction, Golub said.

"Barbara Izzarelli was targeted by Reynolds when she was 12 years old with a product specifically designed to addict her," Golub said.

Howard denied the company targets youths. He said cigarettes have come with warnings since the 1960s.

The jury found Izzarelli's damages totaled nearly $14 million, but ruled that both Reynolds and Izzarelli bore responsibility for her smoking injuries. The jury allocated responsibility 58 percent to Reynolds and 42 percent to Izzarelli, reducing her award from $13.9 million to $8.0765 million.

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