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Attorney urges jury to send message to tobacco industry

May 2, 1997

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) _ R.J. Reynolds should be sent a message that its products killed Jean Connor, and it should be held responsible for her lung cancer and death, a lawyer for her family told a jury today.

``Jean Connor died of lung cancer caused by cigarette smoking,″ Norwood ``Woody″ Wilner said in his closing argument. ``If she hadn’t smoked Reynolds’ products she would not have died of lung cancer.″

But Paul Crist, an attorney for the nation’s second-largest tobacco company, said the case was about Mrs. Connor and her choice to smoke.

``They want you to send a message you can only send if you ignore the law. They want to send a message you can only send if you ignore your common sense,″ Crist said.

``This case is not about messages at all. This case is about Jean Connor. This case is about decisions she made throughout her lifetime.″

Wilner had asked jurors to find that Reynolds was negligent and that its cigarettes were dangerous and defective.

``Reynolds had actual knowledge that its products were harmful _ dangerous,″ he said.

``Lots of people are interested in this case besides us,″ Wilner told the six-member jury. ``We are asking you to send a message to R.J. Reynolds, and certainly a lot of people will hear that message.″

The verdict, Wilner said, ``will have a significant impact on everyone in this courtroom and way beyond.″

He said Reynolds was aware of the dangers of smoking for decades but hid the truth from the public, and that Mrs. Connor was lured into smoking by the glamourous images presented by the industry and was already addicted when warning labels first appeared on cigarettes.

In videotapes recorded before her death at age 49, the frail, bald woman dying of lung cancer that had spread to her brain, liver, and spinal cord testified she smoked up to three packs a day. She quit in 1993, a month before she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

Mrs. Connor died on Oct. 1, 1995, two years after her cancer was diagnosed. Her two sons and a daughter want the jurors to award actual and punitive damages in ``the multiple millions.″

Ron Motley, another family lawyer, pointed out to the jury today that Reynolds is worth $2.7 billion.

``Would $1 million punish them?″ he asked. ``Would it stop them?″

``This national disaster can be stopped right here, right now, forever,″ Motley said. ``The evidence demands it.″

But Crist countered that Mrs. Connor’s attorneys had failed to meet their burden of proof.

The evidence, Crist said today, is that Mrs. Connor enjoyed smoking and continued to smoke regardless of the health risks.

During the trial, Reynolds’ attorneys said there was no proof her cancer was the result of her heavy smoking _ even putting on some experts who claimed there was no proven link between lung cancer and smoking.

They claimed the link between smoking and health problems has been common knowledge for decades, so there was no duty to warn people like Mrs. Connor.

The case comes at a time when the legal and regulatory tide has turned against the tobacco industry. A verdict against Reynolds could hasten talks between the industry and state and federal governments for a landmark multibillion-dollar settlement, experts say.

``If tobacco loses this one, they could lose a lot more,″ said Melissa F. Ronan, an attorney with Litigation Analysis for Wall Street.

Wilner, who leads Mrs. Connor’s legal team, won a $750,000 judgment against Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. last fall on behalf of another former smoker. That award was being appealed.

The industry also faces lawsuits by 23 states and countless individuals. A federal judge ruled last month that the Food and Drug Administration could regulate tobacco.

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