A Boston jury awarded $43.1 million dollars to plaintiffs Louis E. Summerlin and his wife Joanna M. Summerlin (on behalf of herself and the estate of her deceased spouse) for tobacco and asbestos claims against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (“Reynolds”), Phillip Morris USA, Inc. (“Phillip Morris”) and manufacturers of products containing asbestos.  The historic verdict awarded Joanna Summerlin $13.1 million dollars in compensatory damages and $30 million in punitive damages after finding that Reynolds, the manufacturer of Kool and Salem menthol cigarettes, was liable for Mr. Summerlin’s lung cancer.

On “The Great Trials Podcast,” Mr. Jerome Block of Levy Konigsberg and Mr. Mike Shepard of Shepard Law discussed the plaintiff’s history, the legal claims made at trial, and the jury’s verdict.  Mr. Summerlin began smoking menthol cigarettes as a teenager in the late 1950s before the first Surgeon General health warnings were issued in 1966. He smoked 2-3 packs of cigarettes per day for 50 years. According to Mr. Block, the addiction caused by the defendants’ products was the pivotal aspect of Mr. Summerlin’s case.  The plaintiff’s addiction was objectively measured by experts at trial and determined to be the most severe form of addiction possible.

At the time that Mr. Summerlin began smoking, tobacco companies did not provide information to the public concerning the addictive nature of nicotine or the risk of cancer due to smoking.  Although the tobacco companies were aware of the health risks of smoking, this information was not shared with the public, and in many cases, companies denied that there were dangers associated with their products. Therefore, Mr. Summerlin was unable to make an informed choice about smoking cigarettes.

The plaintiff’s legal claims included failure to warn, fraudulent concealment, and negligence due to a design defect. Mr. Block and his team argued that the tobacco companies designed cigarettes to be as addictive as possible.  The failure to design cigarettes in a safer manner involved three claims: (i) the defendants introduced menthol into cigarettes to neutralize any negative responses to smoking and menthol has been shown to make cigarettes more addictive; (ii) the defendants knew that there was a minimum level of nicotine necessary to sustain addiction and they ensured that the cigarettes met that threshold to keep smokers addicted; and (iii) the defendants manufactured cigarettes that delivered higher levels of carcinogens than necessary.

The second prong of the case involved the claim that asbestos exposure contributed to Mr. Summerlin’s cancer diagnosis.  The remaining defendants were the manufacturers of brakes and other equipment that Mr. Summerlin handled.  Mr. Summerlin worked as an auto mechanic in Boston and was exposed to equipment that contained asbestos at the same time that he smoked heavily.  Due to Mr. Summerlin’s significant contact with asbestos from dust and brake grinding, Mr. Block and his team argued that repairing and installing brakes containing asbestos was a substantial contributing cause of Mr. Summerlin’s lung cancer. The jury ultimately found that Mr. Summerlin’s decades-long addiction to menthol cigarettes was the cause of his lung cancer and that Reynolds was liable for damages.

The attorneys at Levy Konigsberg LLP handle tobacco and asbestos cases nationwide. We can help you obtain the compensation you and your family deserve for your injuries. We have recovered billions of dollars in verdicts and settlements for the victims of tobacco and asbestos manufacturers. Please call us today at 1-800-988-8005 for a free and confidential evaluation.


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