Family members of Baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn have filed a wrongful death lawsuit in a California state court, alleging that a tobacco company lured him into an addiction to smokeless tobacco that made him an unwitting promoter of the products and eventually led to the ballplayer’s death in 2014. The suit, filed in California Superior Court by Gwynn’s widow and two children, names the Altria Group – the parent company of Philip Morris USA and U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co. – for its sale and marketing of smokeless tobacco products under brands including Skoal, Copenhagen and Happy Days. According to the complaint, Gwynn started using smokeless tobacco or “dip” at age 17 while in college after receiving free samples from the company. He used it throughout his 20-year Major League Baseball career.
Gwynn died in 2014 at age 54 from salivary gland cancer. It’s alleged in the suit that Gwynn’s addiction turned him into an unwitting promotional figure for the deadly products, especially in the eyes of young children, even though the company knew all along about their associated health risks but refused to admit them. The complaint states:
Collectively, the defendants are the companies and individuals that manufactured, adulterated and pushed on the public the tobacco products that led to Gwynn’s death, all while falsely denying the products were dangerous or addictive and engaging in a worldwide campaign to continually recruit new underage users. This case seeks to hold them responsible for killing a baseball legend and a wonderful human being.
Gwynn started receiving free samples of smokeless tobacco products as a San Diego State University freshman and eventually became a “self-described ‘tobacco junkie'” who daily consumed as much as two cans of dip, the equivalent of four to five packs of cigarettes. Comparing this marketing tactic to the practices of illicit drug dealers, the family said the scheme was part of larger practice of the company, which they said purposefully targeted young people, athletes and African-Americans in efforts to promote addiction. The complaint says:
The only major difference between the marketing by defendants and other dealers is that defendants orchestrated their schemes from a boardroom instead of a street corner. The tactic is basically the same.
After his 1982 debut with the San Diego Padres, Gwynn quickly became a an extremely popular player because of his outstanding on-field performance and likable personality. He was a natural hitter and had a tremendous career. His constant use of tobacco products made him a marketing tool without his even knowing it. The complaint says:
Throughout his career, he was photographed and broadcast directly into countless homes across America, including in formats like baseball cards directed at children, complete with a distinctive dip visible in his lower right cheek and a distinctive round can of dip visible in his back pocket. Defendants received the benefit of this priceless advertising without Tony’s knowledge, permission or compensation.
The company has known since the 1960s that smokeless tobacco could have devastating health effects, but worked to convince the public otherwise. The Gwynn family said the industry has now been forced to place warning labels on its products with the admission that they could cause oral cancer, but no such labels appeared when the all-star outfielder first received samples. And despite the labels, the family said that tobacco companies today continue to dispute the fact that dip is addictive and cancerous.
The complaint has claims for negligence, product liability, negligent misrepresentation and fraudulent concealment. In addition to Altria and its subsidiaries, the suit also names three individuals who marketed the products on the San Diego State campus while Gwynn attended school there and the operators of two ampm convenience stores where he purchased the dip. A lawyer for the Gwynns, David S. Casey, Jr., told Law360.com that the suit is meant to remind people about the dangers of smokeless tobacco. Casey had this to say:
Tony Gwynn was an iconic figure in the history of baseball and a role model for many young people. The family really wants people to know that the dipping and chewing of tobacco is dangerous to their health.
The Gwynns are represented by David Casey Jr., Frederick Schenk, Robert J. Francavilla, Jeremy Robinson, Srinivas Hanumadass and Adam B. Levine of Casey Gerry Schenk Francavilla Blatt & Penfield; and Donald P. Tremblay, Peter Q. Schluederberg and Katherine A. Tremblay of the Law Offices of Donald P. Tremblay. The case is in the Superior Court of the State of California, County of San Diego.