Reynolds Is First Tobacco Target for Veteran Lawyer

Attorney Willie Gary
Attorney Willie Gary pauses during a break at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Photographer: Richard Sheinwald/ Bloomberg

Willie Gary, the Florida trial lawyer who won a $500 million verdict against a funeral-home chain in a contract dispute and $240 million over claims that Walt Disney Co. stole his clients’ theme-park idea, is now turning his sights on R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

Gary’s partner, Manuel Socias, began delivering opening arguments today in a suit against Reynolds, the second-biggest U.S. tobacco company, filed by Leroy Kirkland of Tampa, Florida, who alleges he developed cancer from decades of smoking Salem and Pall Mall cigarettes.

“They knew it was addictive,” Socias told the six jurors and three alternates. “They knew what they were selling and they knew it was a drug. They knew they were drug dealers.”

Kirkland’s is the first tobacco trial for Gary, one of 11 children born to a family of migrant workers in Georgia. The tobacco industry has won eight of its last nine Florida verdicts. Gary, 63, predicts a billion-dollar result.

“This is it,” Gary said in a telephone interview. “I feel it in my bones.”

Reynolds, a unit of Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based Reynolds American Inc., said in court papers that Kirkland knew the risks and chose to smoke on his own, before quitting in the early 1990s. Before then, Kirkland ignored warnings from his family and even referred to cigarettes as “cancer sticks,” the company said.

Funeral Homes

Gary’s biggest victory came in 1996, when he persuaded a Mississippi jury to award $500 million in a suit against Loewen Group Inc., a Canadian owner of funeral homes.

He also secured a $240 million award in 2000 against Walt Disney in a case claiming the company stole his clients’ idea for a sports theme park. In 2001, Gary won a $139 million verdict against Anheuser-Busch Cos. for the family of former baseball player Roger Maris in a suit over a beer distributorship.

The website of Gary, Williams, Finney, Lewis, Watson & Sperando PL, Gary’s law firm in Stuart, Florida, features photos of “Wings of Justice II,” his customized Boeing 737, equipped with 32 seats and an 18-carat gold bathroom sink. A promotional video, set to songs from the film “Rocky” and its sequels, shows Gary in his Stuart, Florida, office and $10 million mansion on the St. Lucie River.

Gary announced two years ago that he and his firm would be representing hundreds of Florida smokers and their families in lawsuits against tobacco companies, according to a statement distributed by PRNewswire.

Father of Six

In the Kirkland case, Gary is seeking compensatory and punitive damages for Kirkland, 71, a divorced father of six who began smoking when he was 11 or 12, before health warnings were required to be included on cigarette packs, according to Gary’s partner, Tricia Hoffler.

Kirkland claims he contracted cancer of the larynx and emphysema, the judge told jurors at the start of trial.

“We’re eager to take on Big Tobacco,” said Hoffler. “The conduct by the defendant has been beyond egregious.”

Gary added as local counsel Howard Acosta, a lawyer with experience litigating tobacco cases.

Reynolds declined to comment about the Kirkland case.

The suit by Kirkland is one of more than 8,000 individual claims by smokers filed in state and federal courts throughout Florida after the state’s supreme court in 2006 threw out a $145 billion punitive-damage verdict against the industry and ended a class action filed on behalf of Florida smokers.

Jury Findings

At the same time, the court gave members of the class -- Florida smokers claiming death and sickness resulting from addiction to nicotine in cigarettes -- a one-year window to file individual claims. The court also said the smokers could press their claims using jury findings in the class action, including that the tobacco companies sold defective products, concealed the dangers of smoking and acted negligently.

So far, 32 “Engle” claims -- named after Howard Engle, the lead plaintiff in the unsuccessful class action -- have been tried to verdict, according to Edward L. Sweda Jr., senior attorney for the Tobacco Products Liability Project, which tracks the suits. Smokers and their families have won 21 verdicts.

Verdicts have ranged as high as almost $300 million, in Fort Lauderdale in 2009, against Altria Group Inc.’s Philip Morris unit. The trial judge in the case, calling the amount “grossly excessive,” reduced it to $38.9 million.

After losing most of the trials, the industry won eight Florida defense verdicts in a row, beginning with a win for Reynolds in August. The streak ended with an $80 million verdict against Reynolds in Levy County in November.

The Kirkland trial, before Judge William P. Levens in Florida Circuit Court in Tampa, is expected to take three weeks.

The case is In Re Engle Progeny Cases Tobacco Litigation, 08-CA-673, Florida Circuit Court, Hillsborough County (Tampa).

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