By Emily Cox
During Friday’s opening statements, a Boston jury heard that RJ Reynolds and Phillip Morris cigarettes coupled with exposure to an auto parts company’s asbestos-laden brakes caused a man to develop fatal lung cancer.
Plaintiff Joanna Summerlin’s council kicked off the trial before Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Heidi Brieger by telling the jury that the plaintiff’s late husband, Louis Summerlin, became addicted to cigarettes during a time when tobacco companies knew, and actively concealed, that their products caused cancer. The combination of smoking and exposure to Hampden Automoive Corp.’s brakes multiplied both products’ cancer-causing effects.
During their opening statements, the tobacco companies’ attorneys countered that Summerlin, by his own admission, chose to smoke because he enjoyed it and that he could quit smoking when he had proper motivation.
Summerlin’s lawyer described how his client’s husband, who died in 2015 at age 73, began smoking cigarettes when he was a teenager, outlining how he didn’t initially take to cigarettes until he tried a menthol brand, saying the cigarettes’ additives gave a cooling, numbing sensation that “made it easier for teenagers like Mr. Summerlin to become initiated as smokers.”
The attorney went on the detail internal documents that show Brown & Williamson, the company responsible for Kool cigarettes that has since merged with Reynolds, clearly knew smoking caused lung cancer in the years Summerlin became addicted. Summerlin also smoked Philip Morris Marlboro Menthols.
According to the lawyer, Summerlin became deeply addicted to cigarettes, lighting one up each day “before his feet hit the floor,” adding that years before Summerlin filed his lawsuit, his primary care doctor noted that the man “cannot stop. He has tried all aids to stop smoking.”
Cigarettes and Asbestos Exposure Contributed to Cancer
Although Summerlin quit smoking in 2009, his lung cancer diagnosis “shattered” his life with his wife. The couple’s attorney indicated that the jury would see a videotaped deposition testimony from Summerlin, who originally filed the lawsuit in the months before his death.
The lawyer also emphasized Hampden’s role, telling the jury that Summerlin worked as an auto mechanic for 25 years, being continually exposed to asbestos-containing Hampden brake linings. He asserted that the company could and should have easily discovered the asbestos exposure risks when it was distributing its products. He went on to say that asbestos and cigarettes caused Summerlin’s lethal disease.
“The two interact, there’s a synergy. The more asbestos you’re exposed to, the greater your risk for developing lung cancer from smoking; the more smoking, the greater your risk for developing lung cancer from asbestos,” he said.
During his opening statement, a Phillip Morris’ lawyer told the jury that the plaintiff’s attorneys would not present any evidence, including Summerlin’s own testimony, that shows tobacco companies influenced his decision with their fraudulent information or any other information they disseminated.
According to the defendants’ attorney, Summerlin was a “smart and strong-willed person,” who enjoyed smoking and chose to do so for years after warning labels began appearing on cigarettes and even after he had decided to quit for a short time when he felt cigarettes were affecting his stamina.
The lawyer also pointed out that Summerlin didn’t smoke Philip Morris cigarettes until the 1980s when he tried a coworker’s Marlboro Menthol. At this point, cigarette packs had warning labels, including one saying smoking causes lung cancer.
Defendant attorneys focused on Summerlin’s “personal choice” to begin smoking, and to keep smoking, despite knowing the risks.