BROOKSVILLE - A class action lawsuit, ebbing and flowing through Florida courts since 1994, has paved the way for a local man to file suit against the tobacco companies he believes responsible for his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Often referred to as the "Engle cases," the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 decided "all Florida citizens and residents, and their survivors, who have suffered, presently suffer or have died from diseases and medical conditions caused by their addiction to cigarettes that contain nicotine" can individually sue tobacco companies for damages.
John Rizzuto, 66, of Spring Hill, filed a civil lawsuit in 2008 against Philip Morris and the Liggett Group. The trial started on Monday with jury selection.
In a recent deposition, Rizzuto said he continued to suffer from "severe" COPD.
"My breathing is difficult when I do any sort of housework," the deposition states. "If I mop the floor, if I sweep, if I vacuum, if I make my bed. Changing the sheets on my bed I get very much out of breath . I stopped doing a lot of things I used to do."
Rizzuto also said he uses various inhalers for his condition, as well as a nebulizer two to three times daily. Even though he no longer smokes, Rizzuto believes he is still addicted to cigarettes, according to court documents, and thinks about smoking "several times a week."
" ... In the morning after the coffee, that's when I always used to smoke, the thought comes in, thank God I don't give in to that thought. And I hope I never do again to be honest," Rizzuto said.
Jury selection continued on Tuesday, with Rizzuto's attorney, Brent Bigger, questioning potential jurors for the majority of the day.
Referring to juror questionnaires, Bigger asked specific jurors if they smoked, or if they've smoked in the past. Common questions included if they believed family members have died from smoking.
A few potential jurors said they started smoking in their 20s, 30s or 40s. More often, however, jurors said they first lit up in their teens, with one as young as eight years old.
Perhaps the smoker with the longest record in the room was a e-cigarette salesman, who said he'd been smoking on and off for 50 years.
Daily smokers confessed they'd tried to quit in the past but ate too much, others said they enjoy smoking and couldn't see themselves giving it up. Some said they were addicted to cigarettes, others said they could quit if they wanted to.
Several jurors were dismissed after saying they didn't agree with the ruling that stipulates individuals can sue tobacco companies for damages. One juror said she thought it was "stupid" to be able to sue a tobacco company, comparing it to the idea of suing a fast-food company if you spill hot coffee on yourself.
When asked how many people would want to sit on the jury, about 27 raised their hand.
After a day and a half of questioning from Rizzuto's attorney, defense attorney William Geraghty, who represents Philip Morris, began questioning prospective jurors.
Geraghty asked jurors who said they smoked or used to smoke, if cigarette companies ever forced them to do so, and used similar analogies on social drinkers in the group, asking one woman if a vodka company ever made her drink.
Jury selection will continue on Wednesday. The trial is expected to last at least two weeks.