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Lawyers from New York and Boston teamed up for a first-of-its-kind battle with both asbestos and tobacco defendants sitting in the same Massachusetts courtroom that ended with a $43 million jury verdict for the family of an auto mechanic who was a heavy smoker and who died of lung cancer.
After a five-week trial and 23 total hours of deliberations spread over four days, a jury of 11 found against cigarette maker R.J. Reynolds on claims of defective design, fraud failure to adequately warn and in favor of the family of the late Louis Summerlin, a longtime smoker who worked for years as an automotive brake mechanic.
The jury awarded $30 million in punitive damages, $5.3 million for pain and suffering, $4.3 million for wrongful death and $3.5 million for loss of consortium. The jury also found that the products of cigarette maker Phillip Morris and Hampden Automotive Sales Corp., which sold asbestos-laden brakes, were defective, but did not cause Summerlin’s death.
The plaintiffs also brokered confidential settlements with four other companies that produced asbestos-laden brakes, said Levy Konigsberg partner Jerry Block.
Levy Konigsberg worked together with Boston-based Shepard Law to represent the Summerlin family; it was another victory for two toxic-tort boutiques that have racked up a number of big verdicts against asbestos and tobacco defendants.
Because their products have been found to cause lung cancer, asbestos and tobacco defendants often invoke one another during trials to shift blame and reduce their own liability, Block said, but the companies are typically throwing fault at an “empty chair.”
In the Summerlin case, however, for the first time, the plaintiffs were able to get asbestos and tobacco defendants together before the same jury, Block said.
“We looked at this case and we decided that we were going to bring it against all the companies that were responsible,” Block said. He was joined on the case by Levy Konigsberg attorneys Bobby Ellis and Amber Long.
Jones Day partner Mark Belasic and Kaitlyn Kline, an associate with the firm, represented R.J Reynolds. The attorneys did not respond to a request for comment on the ruling.
Judge Heidi Brieger of the Suffolk Superior Court in Boston presided over the case.
Attorneys for the Summerlins presented evidence to the jury about what cigarette companies knew about the dangers of smoking back in the 1950s, as well as internal documents showing that companies manipulated the levels of nicotine in cigarettes to keep smokers hooked.
The jury was also presented with documents showing that tobacco companies knew that adding menthol to cigarettes increased teen smoking. Menthol numbs the throat and makes it easier to inhale smoke.
“They saw through the defendants' attempts to blame our client for his cancer and clearly recognized the role of nicotine addiction and menthol additives in keeping him hooked on cigarettes," said Michael Shepard of Shepard Law of the jurors in a news release.
Philip Morris was represented by Bill Geraghty of Shook, Hardy & Bacon and other attorneys from the firm, as well as attorneys from Mayer Brown and local counsel from Latham & Watkins’ office in Boston.
David Governo and Vincent DePalo from Boston-based Smith Duggan Buell & Rufo appeared for Hampden Automotive.
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