FORT MYERS — John Syzmanski of Fort Myers has held many titles in his life.
The 72-year-old former Marco Island resident was the director of Collier County’s Head Start Program, a Collier County principal and speech therapist before retiring on disability in 1996 due to disease from more than four decades of smoking.
Today, that addiction will earn him a new title.
Syzmanski will be the first of nearly 12 dozen Lee County plaintiffs to head to trial against Big Tobacco since the state Supreme Court decided Engle v. Liggett Group, et al, which changed the way tobacco cases are argued in Florida.
Since the precedent-setting 2006 ruling, about 50 others have gone to trial statewide, winning multimillion-dollar awards. One of those, Philip Morris USA and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco v. James L. Douglas, who represents his wife’s estate, will be argued today before the Second District Court of Appeal in Tampa.
“The cigarette industry is ruthless in the way they defend these cases,” said Howard Acosta, a St. Petersburg attorney who won a $5 million verdict last year, which was reduced by half due to the comparative negligence of Charlotte Douglas, 62, who died in 2006. “Cigarette companies spend millions and millions of dollars defending these.”
Acosta, who has about 350 cigarette cases, including cases in Collier and Lee, didn’t seek punitive damages in that case, speeding up the trial, when jurors apportioned 27 percent liability to Liggett Group, 18 percent to Philip Morris USA and 5 percent to R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. The appeal is being argued by appellate counsel.
The Douglas case was one of three that went to trial that spring. A week later, R.J. Reynolds was told to pay two more plaintiffs $17.5 million and $30 million.
Today in Fort Myers, a panel of 150 potential jurors will undergo voir dire, which is attorneys’ questioning of jurors during jury selection in Syzmanski’s case. The case is expected to take up to three days before Circuit Judge Sherra Winesett.
In the weeks leading up to trial, Winesett denied attempts by lawyers for R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris USA and Liggett Group LLC to delay the trial or move it to another county after defense attorneys cited negative pretrial publicity.
Syzmanski’s lawyer, Craig Stevens of Morgan & Morgan, couldn’t be reached for comment Monday, nor could defense attorneys. But depositions detail Syzmanski’s history of smoking.
His mother, a Catholic school nurse, gave him a Chesterfield cigarette when he was 9 or 10 years old as he sat at the kitchen table of his New Jersey home with his parents, both smokers.
“I think I had a couple of puffs,” Syzmanski testified, adding that he didn’t like it because it was harsh and made him feel poorly.
He had his second at age 13, when he and a friend smoked Pall Malls.
His nearly pack-a-day habit began in high school, when he and a friend would sneak off campus to smoke Chesterfields and Lucky Strikes.
Over the years, he tried to quit, initially after heading to college on a full competitive swimming scholarship. It was his Mormon swimming coach — and a desire to date Mormon girls there — that prompted him to try.
“They don’t like smokers,” Syzmanski testified. “So that was a motivation.”
But he continued, trying filtered cigarettes, L&M and Newports, Salems, Kents, Newports, Marlboros and Camels.
“Camels were stronger than the other cigarettes,” Syzmanski testified, estimating he smoked those for up to 10 years.
He never really quit, even after the U.S. Surgeon General’s 1964 report, holding smoking responsible for a 70 percent increase in deaths and estimating smokers were about 10 times more likely to develop lung cancer and heavy smokers 20 times more likely.
“When they diagnosed the cancer of the larynx, they scheduled me for radiation,” Syzmanski testified, noting that he was smoking Camels that year, 1993, even when he underwent therapy. “And at that point, I was holding them in my teeth. I was sucking on the non-filtered end. I was really having a hard time quitting.”
Now, he has laryngeal cancer, neck cancer, mouth cancer and tongue cancer — all, his attorney argue, came from smoking.
Cigarette companies are on the attack, citing past marijuana use, cigarettes they don’t manufacture and other causes of his cancers.
It was Miami pediatrician Dr. Howard Engle who made U.S. legal history in 2000, when his class-action lawsuit ended in a $145 billion punitive damages award, the largest in the nation. Jurors also awarded $12.7 million in damages.
After a two-year trial in Miami, jurors deliberated less than five hours, deciding Philip Morris should pay nearly $74 billion, Reynolds more than $36 billion, Brown and Williamson more than $17.5 billion, Lorillard tobacco $16.25 billion and the Liggett Group $790 million.
In 2003, after cigarette manufacturers appealed, the Third District Court of Appeal reversed the award, calling it excessive. In July 2006, the Florida Supreme Court agreed, but reinstated compensatory damages of $2.85 million and $4.023 million for two plaintiffs.
The high court ruled it was a mistake to certify Engle’s lawsuit as a class-action representing roughly 300,000 to 700,000 Floridians made ill by smoking, but ruled individuals who were diagnosed with tobacco-related diseases before November 1996 — and families of deceased smokers — could file individual claims against cigarette companies.
In a major win for smokers, the court upheld the jury’s finding that cigarette companies negligently misled the public about the dangers and addictive nature of cigarettes.
Syzmanski’s attorney must first win a compensatory damages battle, how much the Fort Myers man is entitled to. If he wins that, jurors would then be asked to consider punitive damage, which are meant to punish the tobacco companies.
“Cigarettes are not just tobacco rolled up into paper. They’re a sophisticated drug delivery system,” Acosta said. “They use over 58 design parameters to ensure the drug is delivered.”
Sugar, glycol (the ingredient in antifreeze) and other ingredients, he said, reinforce addiction. “They’re 33 times more carcinogenic than they needed to be,” he said of cigarettes, scoffing at lights, which were found to be no less dangerous.
Engle, 89, a lifelong smoker, died three years after the 2006 ruling, which gave plaintiffs a Jan. 11, 2008, deadline to file claims. Syzmanski filed his two months earlier.
“He was addicted so bad, he would have to light up once in a while,” Syzmanski’s son, John Jr., testified in his deposition.
There are dozens more cases lined up behind his in Lee and a handful in Collier, although more are being severed from dockets in Miami-Dade.
To read the Engle ruling, go here: http://bit.ly/n6t2Hy.