nearly two years after Edward Caprio's death, a Florida jury delivered a $157 million verdict against Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, the companies behind the cigarettes that caused his fatal illness. Picture: Reuters

Washington - In the final days of his husband's long battle with lung disease, Bryan Rintoul made a vow: He would hold the tobacco companies accountable.

On Friday, nearly two years after Edward Caprio's death, a Florida jury delivered a $157 million verdict against Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, the companies behind the cigarettes that caused his fatal illness. Rintoul felt he had kept his word.

"I followed through," he said, voice cracking, in an interview with The Washington Post. "I followed through on a promise I made to Ed Caprio that I would pursue this in his memory. For him."

The verdict represented a promise kept, but it also represented something more. Rintoul's lawyers believe it was the first of its kind involving a same-sex couple in Florida, if not the United States.

In most wrongful death cases in Florida, a widow or widower cannot recover damages unless the fatal illness struck after the couple was married, the attorneys said. Because same-sex couples only gained the legal right to marry in 2015, that can be a difficult hurdle to clear.

Broward Circuit Judge David Haimes ruled last year that it would be unconstitutional to apply the rule in Rintoul's case. Rintoul and Caprio married days after Florida legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, but their attorneys argued that the couple, who spent almost 40 years together, would have done so decades earlier if they had been allowed. Jurors agreed.

"This jury recognized Ed and Bryan with open arms," said Steven Hammer, one of the lawyers. "And the bias and the prejudice that has been out there for years and years about gay couples, in this courtroom, didn't exist."

Steve Callahan, a spokesman for Philip Morris parent company Altria, said the company plans to seek further review of the verdict. He added, "We believe that the punitive damages award is grossly excessive and a clear violation of constitutional and state law."

But Tara Borelli, an attorney with the Lambda Legal gay-rights organization, told the Sun Sentinel that the jury got it right. "Florida's ban on marriage for same-sex couples has always been unconstitutional, so it can never be used as an excuse to deny important benefits to survivors," she said.

A veteran of the Vietnam War, Rintoul met Caprio in the 1970s while the two worked at the same advertising agency in Los Angeles. They moved in together in 1983. They were barred from wedding for most of their years together, and yet they were like any other married couple, Rintoul said.

"We did the same thing that everybody else did," he said. "We'd go to the movies, we'd have date night, we'd meet friends for dinner ... If we had a disagreement, I would go to him and I'd say, 'Well, you need to apologize to me.' And he'd go, 'You need to apologize to me.' And then we'd start laughing."

Caprio was diagnosed in 1996 with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He had started smoking at 15 years old and found cigarettes too addictive to give up - even after the diagnosis. He first filed his lawsuit against the tobacco companies in 2007, enduring a trial that ended in a hung jury before he died and Rintoul took up the case on his behalf.

In court, their attorneys argued the companies had intentionally caused young people to become addicted to their products. They pointed to Altria's investment in e-cigarette producer Juul - the company some critics blame for creating a youth vaping epidemic - as evidence that Big Tobacco hasn't changed.

"Adoption by youth is the key to their business," attorney Scott Schlesinger said. "And while they speak out of one side of the mouth, actions speak louder than words."

The Washington Post