Major v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., B260355

CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals
Citation222 Cal.Rptr.3d 563,14 Cal.App.5th 1179
Decision Date30 August 2017
Docket Numberc/w B265671,B260355
Parties Tajie MAJOR, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. R.J. REYNOLDS TOBACCO COMPANY, Defendant and Appellant.

14 Cal.App.5th 1179
222 Cal.Rptr.3d 563

Tajie MAJOR, Plaintiff and Appellant,
R.J. REYNOLDS TOBACCO COMPANY, Defendant and Appellant.

c/w B265671

Court of Appeal, Second District, Division 8, California.

Filed August 30, 2017

Jones Day, Steven N. Geise, San Diego, Gregory G. Katsas, N.W. Washington, and Charles R.A. Morse, New York, for Defendant and Appellant.

Brayton Purcell, Gilbert L. Purcell, Richard M. Grant, and Jason M. Rose, Novato, for Plaintiff and Appellant.


14 Cal.App.5th 1182

William E. Major smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, on average, from 1961 to 1989. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1997, and died a year later. His wife, plaintiff Tajie Major, brought suit against several manufacturers of cigarettes Major had smoked, as well as manufacturers of asbestos to which he had been exposed, alleging that Major's smoking and his asbestos exposure caused his lung cancer and death.1 All defendants but one settled, and plaintiff proceeded to trial against only Lorillard Tobacco Company, the manufacturer of Kent and Newport cigarettes.2 After trial, the jury concluded that Lorillard's cigarettes were defectively designed, and that their design was a substantial factor in causing Major's death. In allocating

222 Cal.Rptr.3d 568

responsibility for plaintiff's damages, the jury determined Major was 50 percent liable, Lorillard was 17 percent liable, other cigarette manufacturers were 33 percent liable, and asbestos exposure was not a substantial factor. After making appropriate allowances for comparative negligence and settlements, judgment was entered against Lorillard for an amount in excess of $3.75 million, plus costs and interest.

Lorillard appeals, arguing: (1) federal law preempts liability on the theory pursued; (2) the trial court erred in refusing its proposed jury instruction that the sale of cigarettes is lawful; (3) the trial court erred in refusing to instruct the jury on "but-for" causation; (4) there is insufficient evidence that any defective design of Lorillard's cigarettes caused Major's death, in that Major would not have smoked any conceivable non-defective cigarette; and (5) the trial court erred in excluding evidence of Major's asbestos exposure, in the form of admissions in Mrs. Major's complaint, discovery responses, and claims against asbestos bankruptcy trusts. Mrs. Major cross-appeals, arguing the court erred in calculating the prejudgment interest to which she was entitled. We reject each of these arguments and affirm both the appeal and cross-appeal.

In doing so, we conclude, among other things, that: (1) Congress has expressed no intent to foreclose tort liability against cigarette manufacturers, even if liability may have some negative impact on the sale of cigarettes; and (2) but-for causation does not apply in a case of multiple causes, different combinations of which are sufficient to have caused the harm.

14 Cal.App.5th 1183


1. Major's Smoking History

There is no serious dispute that Major smoked heavily from 1961 until he quit in 1989. What is not entirely clear is when he smoked Lorillard cigarettes, specifically Kents and Newports, as opposed to other brands. Mrs. Major testified that she did not recall Major being exclusive to any one brand, although she remembered seeing him smoke Kents, Marlboros and Winstons. In one interrogatory answer, which Lorillard entered into evidence, Mrs. Major stated that Major smoked Winstons from 1961 to 1965; Marlboros from 1961 to 1984; and Kents from 1984 to 1989. However, anecdotal evidence reflects Major's use of Lorillard cigarettes was not limited to the 1984–1989 period. A Navy colleague testified that, in Spring 1973, Major was smoking Kents and Newports. From that point until March 1975, he saw Major smoking Kents and (once) Marlboros. One of Major's daughters testified that Major smoked Kents between 1979 and 1981. In short, the jury appears to have concluded that Lorillard cigarettes accounted for approximately one-third of the harm Major suffered from cigarettes—a conclusion broadly supported by the evidence that he smoked Lorillard cigarettes, although not exclusively, during 12 years of his nearly 30–year smoking history.

Major quit smoking in 1989. It was hard. Later, when he encouraged his daughter to get her husband to quit, he told her that "[i]t's going to be hard to quit" and "[i]t's really tough to quit." Before he stopped, Major had tried to quit perhaps four times; each attempt had been unsuccessful and he had resumed the habit. Major's smoking history was in line with expert testimony that, due to nicotine addiction, only three percent of smokers' attempts to quit are successful and, on average, it takes seven or eight years for a smoker to stop smoking once he or she has chosen to do so.

2. Major's Cancer and Death

In 1997, Major was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer, which the lung pathologist

222 Cal.Rptr.3d 569

expert described as a "bad, bad type of cancer." It metastasized to Major's lymph nodes, brain, liver and bone. He was dead in a year. There is no dispute that Major's lung cancer was caused, at least in part, by cigarette smoke carcinogens. At trial, Lorillard questioned whether it was not also caused by asbestos exposure. On that, the medical evidence was, at best, inconclusive. There was no evidence that Major had asbestosis or chest cavity scarring caused by asbestos. While this did not exclude asbestos as a cause of Major's lung cancer, most people who have asbestos-caused lung cancer"usually" also present with evidence of a scar disease specific to asbestos.

14 Cal.App.5th 1184

3. Plaintiff's First Action

In January 1999, plaintiff brought suit against Lorillard, two other cigarette manufacturers, and numerous asbestos manufacturers (the "First Action"). She alleged that Major's cancer was caused by exposure to both asbestos and cigarettes.

4. The Action is Dismissed and Refiled Six Years Later

In 2005, the parties then remaining in the First Action agreed to a dismissal without prejudice (the "Dismissal Agreement"). At that time, several smoking-related cases were then pending in appellate courts, and the parties concluded that those cases might control, or at least affect, the disposition of this one. The parties agreed that plaintiff could refile her action after the appellate cases had been resolved, and that, if she did, "[a]ll prior costs and C.C.P. § 998 offers will be tacked onto and applicable to, any refiled Action." The Dismissal Agreement is at issue here solely in connection with plaintiff's cross-appeal.

The case was ultimately refiled in 2011.

5. The Operative Complaint

The operative pleading in the refiled action is Mrs. Major's first amended complaint, filed in February 2012. By this time, plaintiff had resolved her disputes with the asbestos manufacturers, and the only defendants were cigarette companies. Nonetheless, the operative complaint still alleged that Major's cancer had been caused by "the exposure to asbestos and tobacco."

Mrs. Major alleged two wrongful death causes of action: negligence and products liability. She alleged that defendants' cigarettes were defective when used as intended, and their risks outweighed their benefits.

6. The Trial

The other cigarette company defendants settled, and the case proceeded to jury trial against Lorillard, on the theory of design defect under the risk/benefit test, and negligent design which, in this case, was virtually identical to the risk/benefit theory. What was remarkable about the case was that Lorillard called no witnesses on its own behalf; the only testimony it elicited was through cross-examination of plaintiff's witnesses.

A. Evidence That Lorillard's Cigarettes Were Defective

On the issue of Lorillard's defective design, plaintiff elicited expert testimony to the following effect: (1) cigarettes are highly-engineered products, with design choices being made on every possible detail, including, for

14 Cal.App.5th 1185

example, the length and diameter of the cigarette, the weight of the tobacco, the type of filter, the density of the coating over the inside of the filter, and the flavor additives; (2) cigarette "tar"—the chemicals produced by smoking—includes 69 identifiable carcinogens; (3) at the time plaintiff was smoking Lorillard

222 Cal.Rptr.3d 570

cigarettes, the state of the art was such that cigarette manufacturers could have made a no-tar cigarette, both as a traditional cigarette (which actually was marketed at the time) and as an aerosolized e-cigarette (which was not); and (4) nonetheless, Lorillard continued to sell Kent and Newport cigarettes, which contained substantial tar. Lorillard did not contest any of this evidence, but instead suggested that a no-tar cigarette was not a commercially viable alternative design, in that although...

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