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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
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Court Overturns $5.9M Award to Smoker’s Wife

(CN) - R.J. Reynolds is off the hook for a $5.9 million jury award because it wasn't allowed to present evidence at trial that a smoker's alcohol abuse contributed to his lung cancer and death, the 11th Circuit ruled.

Richard and Thelma Aycock were married for over fifty years before Richard's 1996 death from lung cancer. For at least the last decade of their marriage, Richard smoked up to four packs a day, even waking up in the middle of the night to smoke.

After his death, Thelma Aycock sued R.J. Reynolds - maker of Camel, Kool, Winston, and Salem cigarettes - and won a $5.9 million jury verdict on her claims loss of companionship and pain and suffering due to her husband's nicotine addiction, lung cancer and death.

However, R.J. Reynolds claimed on appeal that the trial court improperly excluded evidence that Richard's alcohol abuse may have contributed to his death.

Richard's son, Ronald Aycock, called his father an alcoholic, but Thelma denied that her husband's drinking affected their marriage.

The 11th Circuit found for the tobacco company Thursday, and remanded the case for a new trial.

"In excluding all evidence of Richard's alcohol use except in considering damages, the district court greatly hindered Reynolds' defense," wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Eugene Siler. Siler, of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, was sitting by designation.

"Here, Richard's alcohol use was an essential part of the defense's attempt to show that something other than his smoking could have caused his death. Thus, its probative value was high," he wrote.

In addition, the excluded evidence was also relevant to the jury's allocation of fault because drinking alcohol tends to encourage smoking.

At trial, the jury awarded 72.5 percent of the fault to Reynolds, and 27.5 percent to Richard, meaning Reynolds owed Thelma $4.2 million of the $5.9 million award.

But "Reynolds was handicapped in its response, having been denied the right to argue that Richard's excessive drinking also played a substantial role in his death. By excluding evidence of the alcohol use, Richard's heavy consumption of alcohol was in effect removed as a substantial contributing cause of his purported lung cancer. Moreover, the alcohol use was relevant because it contributed to the smoking itself," Siler said.

The jury was informed of Richard's alcohol abuse and cirrhosis of the liver during the defense's cross-examination of Thelma.

Therefore, "we think it difficult to conclude that any appreciable prejudice would have materialized from evidence linking Richard's alcohol use, of which the jury was already aware, to his death," Siler concluded.

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