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Tuesday, Mar 31, 2015

Plaintiff in smoking lawsuit takes stand


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BROOKSVILLE - Just before noon on Wednesday, one juror started wiping away tears. Then another. And another.

The jury learned more about John Rizzuto's life Wednesday as he testified against tobacco manufacturers Philip Morris and the Liggett Group. For the past week and a half, jurors got quick glimpses into who Rizzuto was as a person, but heard more about his medical history and expert testimony than his character.

"I'm a person of faith," Rizzuto said. "I'm not afraid to die, but I am afraid to die slowly," said Rizzuto, who lives by himself. Rizzuto said he's also afraid of becoming a "burden" to his children.

"Quite honestly I don't know what I would do," Rizzuto said, adding he would likely go into an assisted living facility at that point. "My family is very important to me, I'd do anything for them, they'd do anything for me," Rizzuto said, seeming to spark the jurors' emotions.

Rizzuto, 66, of Spring Hill, filed a civil lawsuit more than five years ago against the cigarette companies whose cigarettes he smoked for about 40 years. Rizzuto was first diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), in 1994, and today lives with "severe COPD" according to doctors.

Rizzuto said more than once throughout the morning that family was the most important thing to him. Sunday dinners are an Italian tradition Rizzuto carries on with his children and grandchildren today, with Rizzuto making sauce, but not nearly as good as his late wife who taught him.

Singing was important to Rizzuto, who crooned doo-wop tunes throughout his school with friends on street corners and in basements. By 13, Rizzuto's close friends had started smoking. One evening, he lifted a L&M brand cigarette from one of his parents, walked to one of the main streets in Ozone Park, Queens, and lit up.

His first cigarette was "nothing spectacular." But he lit up the next day or day after.

By 14, Rizzuto met his future wife, Marianne. Both were smokers, and Rizzuto said most of his family and friends were smokers too.

Rizzuto tried to stop smoking in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, according to testimony. In 1994, Rizzuto was diagnosed with mild COPD, and quit for good in 2000 after being hospitalized for shortness of breath.

"I just couldn't get the air in," Rizzuto said. "It was a scary situation."

Since 2000, Rizzuto said he's had cravings to smoke but never acted upon it, and believes he is still "addicted." Rizzuto told his attorney, Brent Bigger, about the "adaptations" to his life over the past 20 years.

He's never walked his dog, a terrier named Spike, and only attends his granddaughter's softball games if they play the Anderson Snow fields closest to the parking lot. He cleans his own house and does his own food shopping, although slowly.

"I probably should use the motorized cart, but quite honestly, it's an embarrassment to me," Rizzuto said.

During cross examination, Philip Morris attorney William Geraghty called into question statements Rizzuto has made in past depositions.

Geraghty said back in 2008, Rizzuto said he "didn't know" if he was "addicted" to cigarettes, saying he believed addiction to be a medical term, and he wasn't qualified to speak to his medical state.

Geraghty then moved forward to an Aug. 1 deposition, when Rizzuto told lawyers he is still addicted to cigarettes.

"You said you still believe to this day you were addicted to cigarettes, even though you haven't smoked cigarettes in more than 13 years ... your addiction has not caused you to smoke a single cigarette in the last 13 years?" Geraghty said.

"That's true," Rizzuto answered.

Geraghty also drew from previous depositions, reminding Rizzuto he said he smoked to "calm down," but also used other methods for relaxation, such as taking a Xanax, reading a book, watching television or drinking coffee.

During questioning, Rizzuto maintained he didn't cut back on smoking in the 1970s because of health reasons, but because of the cost. Rizzuto maintained he was aware of the warning label on cigarette boxes at the time, which stated "Cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health."

Geraghty also questioned Rizzuto about his other significant health problems, which include foot and circulation problems, back pain, elevated cholesterol, hypertension and Type 2 diabetes.

Rizzuto's daughter, Gina Stifanic, also testified on Wednesday. Stifanic told jurors when she danced with her father at her 2001 wedding, he was "out of breath" after.

"I'm concerned he's not going to be around that much longer, to see my kids get married, graduate," Stifanic said.

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