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Attorneys Close in Reynolds Case

Courts: Plaintiff says the firm 'chose profit over people.' Defense says health risk from cigarettes is widely known.


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — An attorney for a woman who died of lung cancer after 35 years of heavy smoking called R.J. Reynolds "a company that chose profits over people" Friday in asking a jury to find the tobacco giant guilty of negligence in withholding evidence of the links between smoking and disease.

"We are asking you to send a message in this case," attorney Norwood "Woody" Wilner, representing the family of Jean Conner, told the six-member jury just before it began deliberations that will end a four-week trial in county court here.

"We are not trying to make Jean Conner into a robot or a saint," Wilner said. "She did what she did," which was for years to smoke two to three packs of Winston and then Salem cigarettes made by the North Carolina-based firm. She died in 1995 at age 49.

But, Wilner said in an animated, passionate closing argument, "No one put a gun to R.J. Reynolds' corporate head, either, and made them manufacture and sell cigarettes" after the company's own scientists as far back as 1953 had reported that smoking contributed to lung cancer.

On behalf of Reynolds, a subsidiary of the conglomerate RJR-Nabisco Inc., attorney Paul Crist argued that it has been "common knowledge" for at least 30 years that cigarettes posed a health risk. Earlier in the trial he had cited expressions such as "coffin nails" and popular songs referring to cigarettes as killers as evidence that most people recognized smoking to be dangerous.

"This case is about the decisions Jean Conner made throughout her life despite a drumbeat of anti-smoking messages," Crist said.

Because no autopsy was performed when Conner died, Crist also argued that there was no clear evidence that her lung cancer was caused by smoking. He also reminded jurors that Conner had smoked another manufacturer's brand for at least the last 11 years of her life, before quitting entirely a month before she died.

Wilner countered that only Reynolds, from its own research, really knew just how dangerous cigarettes were, and then made a marketing decision not to tell. In asking the jury to hit Reynolds hard with both compensatory and punitive damages, Wilner charged that the nation's second-largest cigarette maker marketed a hazardous product while knowing that millions of smokers were "holding a keg of dynamite to the chromosomes of their cells."

"And then they controlled the nicotine levels [of the cigarettes] to keep bringing people back," he said, "to promote addiction and dependence."

At a time when the tobacco industry is under siege from both individual smokers and government regulators, the wrongful death case brought by Conner's three adult children and her sister, Dana Raulerson, has been one of the most closely watched in the history of the north Florida seaport city. Judge Bernard Nachman's courtroom was jammed with the media as well as several Wall Street analysts who track the tobacco industry.

"Whatever happens here, regulations are going to tighten up," said Martin Feldman, a senior analyst with Smith Barney in New York.

After two hours of deliberation late Friday, the five women and one man on the jury were sent home for the weekend. They are to resume deliberations Monday.

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