A Jackson County jury will decide whether a tobacco company has to pay $20 million in punitive damages to the family of a deceased smoker who lived in Independence.

A Jackson County jury will decide whether a tobacco company has to pay $20 million in punitive damages to the family of a deceased smoker who lived in Independence.
Opening statements began Thursday in Jackson County Circuit Court in Independence on the civil case of Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. v. Lincoln Smith.
Independence attorney Ken McClain, whose firm has specialized in groundbreaking product liability cases, is representing Lincoln Smith.
Barbara Smith, Lincoln’s wife, smoked Kool cigarettes for nearly 50 years. The cigarettes were made by Brown & Williamson, now part of North Carolina-based Reynolds America Inc.
Smith died of a heart attack in 2000 at age 73. She developed chronic pulmonary disease 10 years before her death, when she stopped smoking cold turkey.
The family sued the tobacco company for causing Barbara’s respiratory and heart diseases and for failure to warn about smoking dangers.
A Jackson County jury in 2005 awarded her family $2 million in compensatory damages that was later reduced to $500,000. But the punitive damages totaled $20 million, making it the largest punitive award in a Missouri smoking case.
Brown & Williamson appealed. The Missouri Appeals Court threw out the $20 million judgment because the basis of the jury’s award was unclear.
The question jurors will decide is whether the company knowingly sold a defective and dangerous cigarette with “complete and conscious disregard” for the safety of the smokers, said Jeffrey L. Furr, attorney for Brown & Williamson.
“No, we did not,” Furr told the 16-member jury.
He said the company attempted to make a safer cigarette but was unsuccessful because there’s no way of making a safe cigarette. They spent time and money on doing four types of studies and none worked.
“Cigarettes just cannot be made safe,” Furr said. “Nobody knows how to make them safer. We tried to make them safer.”
Furr said full-flavor Kool cigarettes are no more addictive or dangerous than other comparable brands of cigarette.
Brown & Williamson made efforts to warn smokers by putting warning labels on packs of cigarettes. Each decade since the 1960s, language of those labels got stronger, Furr said.
McClain, who is representing the Smith family, told the jury the company knew their products were dangerous and were “killing hundreds of thousands of people.” But they made them even more addictive by adding nicotine, a drug that he and studies say keeps people hooked on cigarettes.
McClain zeroed in on nicotine during his opening statement. The company knows people keep smoking because of the nicotine. What they did was produce and design a cigarette with more nicotine than other market brands.
“It was intentional,” McClain said. “No one would smoke the darn things if there wasn’t nicotine in them.”
He said “very few” smokers were aware that nicotine “is a poison,” and that the former chief executive officer of Brown & Williamson had told employees that their products will “hook ’em young; hook ’em for life.”
But Furr challenged McClain’s statement on the amount of the drug, saying the amount of nicotine in Kool cigarettes decreased 61 percent in a 30-year period and tar decreased 56 percent in the same period.
The trial is expected to last several weeks.