Trial opens in case of West Palm Beach widow accusing tobacco company in husband’s death.
For years, Shirley Baker implored her husband to quit smoking.
She nagged. She cajoled. When warning labels were put on cigarette packs, she held one up to his face and demanded he read it. In the words of their son, Richard, who also urged his father to give up the deadly habit, “she rode him like an older Harley.”
But despite their efforts, Elmer “Perry” Baker didn’t quit. In 1993, months after being diagnosed with lung cancer, he died. He was 65.
To Shirley Baker and her attorneys, Perry Baker’s inability to quit is a testament to an addiction that was fueled by decades of lies and deception from tobacco companies.
“This is a case about greed, about money, about how the defendant R.J. Reynolds put sales over safety and profit over people,” her attorney Harry Shevin told a Palm Beach County jury Tuesday.
To attorneys representing R.J. Reynolds, which produced the Lucky Strikes, Winstons and Pall Malls that ultimately produced a tumor in Baker’s chest, the longtime ambulance company owner didn’t quit simply because he didn’t want to.
“Mr. Baker was a willing smoker who chose to smoke because he enjoyed it,” attorney Mark Belasic, who represents the tobacco giant, said. “He knew the risks and he chose to smoke anyway.”
The case is one of about 8,000 that were spawned statewide when the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 threw out the $145 billion a jury awarded smokers in a class-action suit. While upholding the jury’s findings that the cigarette-makers lied about the dangers of smoking, the high court ruled that each smoker had to prove how he or she was uniquely harmed.
By the end of May, when a Broward County jury ordered four tobacco companies to pay $75.35 million to the family of a Lauderhill smoker, 65 cases had gone to trial. Of those, 43 were won by smokers or their families. In the three cases tried in Palm Beach County, two ended with multi-million-dollar verdicts for smokers while one resulted in a win for cigarette-makers
The companies have appealed all of the unfavorable verdicts. In a handful of cases, the decisions have been upheld and the victims compensated.
Like the other cases, Shevin said he will be seeking millions for Bakers, 84, who ran Love’s Flower Shop in West Palm Beach for years before turning it over to one of her sons.
Attorney Sean Domnick, who also represents Baker, told the eight-person jury that when the trial concludes next week, they will have a rare opportunity to tell corporate America that it will pay dearly for putting defective products on the market.
There is no doubt tobacco executives knew cigarettes were dangerous, Shevin said. Internal documents dating to the 1950s show cigarette-companies joined hands, in violation of anti-trust laws, to conceal the dangers of smoking. As late as 1994, tobacco executives assured Congress that cigarettes were neither harmful nor addictive. Their testimony came a year after Baker’s death.
However, Belasic said, the public was well aware of the risks of smoking. In 1899, Florida lawmakers decreed that selling or manufacturing cigarettes was a crime punishable by a maximum six months in jail and a $500 fine. While the law was ultimately repealed, in 1918 state officials required that Florida school children be taught about the dangers of smoking. As a Lake Worth native, Baker learned that lesson in school, he said.
Further, even before the landmark 1964 U.S. Surgeon General report that found the smoking-cancer link, numerous national and local publications warned that cigarettes kill.
“He was a human being who made his own decision,” Belasic said. “He heard the warnings and he told people to shut up, (that) it’s my life.”