Gwynn's Appeal to Jury Could Overshadow Medical Science

Statue of Tony Gwynn via Shutterstock Statue of Tony Gwynn via Shutterstock

The tobacco industry just got buzzed high and tight, a knockdown pitch if you will. And if it chooses to stand up and go to court to fight the legal charges being hurled by the family of the late Tony Gwynn, don't be surprised if one tobacco maker goes down swinging -- even if it has science on its side.

Stemming from a wrongful death lawsuit filed this week by the baseball Hall-of-Famer's family -- alleging a scheme in which Gwynn was intentionally hooked on smokeless tobacco as a young ballplayer, creating an addiction he could not shake and that caused his early death -- the Altria Group will potentially have to contend with wrath of public condemnation, and a huge financial judgment, if this lawsuit actually makes it to court and finds a jury.

"The suit says that the [tobacco] industry was undergoing a determined effort at the time to market its products to African-Americans, and that Gwynn was a 'marketing dream come true' for the defendants," the New York Times wrote about the case and complaint, which seeks an unspecified amount but an all-important jury trial.

From a standpoint of optics -- and quite often high-profile trial cases are largely about perception where facts gets short shrift -- Gwynn's family is wielding a very large, dangerous bat.

The legendary Padres outfielder was a beloved figure in San Diego (and all around baseball, as well) where he played his entire 20-year career. The sweet-swinging lefty was elected to Cooperstown in 2007, in a near-unamimous vote of sportswriters (97.6 percent) from all over America. And that was less than 10 years ago -- so his pristine, affable, happy-go-lucky image is still embedded in the public's consciousness. Moreover, his premature death in 2014, at the age of 54, was universally considered a sports tragedy, especially since it was largely believed to have been brought on by an addiction that Gwynn struggled with, but ultimately couldn't beat. He also underwent disfiguring facial surgery to treat his cancer, and pictures of Gwynn in that condition are widely available and disturbing. Those are some pretty compelling factors in the family's favor; a pretty sympathetic case if there ever was one.

Tony Gwynn's retired jersey display in San Diego via Shutterstock Tony Gwynn's retired jersey display in San Diego via Shutterstock

"Richard A. Daynard, a law professor at Northeastern University who specializes in tobacco liability litigation but is not involved in the case," the Times added, "said Gwynn’s family quite likely had a 'very strong' case because the tobacco companies knew of the health risks at the time Gwynn began using the product. He added that Gwynn’s status as not just a star, but also a person extremely well-regarded by teammates, opponents, fans and the news media, could make him sympathetic to a jury."

Now, compare those factors to what Altria has on its side: The specter of Big Tobacco, which produces cancer-causing and death-inducing products that take the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans annually. And it has perpetually had to fight the perception that it was intentionally trying to coax youngsters into a lifetime of addiction. Not exactly warm and fuzzy.

That said, Altria does have significant evidence to use in its defense. But that medical science -- dry, detailed-laden science -- could stand a strong chance of being overshadowed by Gywnn's formidable halo. But specifically, here's what Altria has going for it:

Public perception is that Gwynn's habit of "dipping," in which he placed smokeless tobacco between his lip and gum, produced the parotid gland cancer that took his life. But medical science says there's no cause and effect between the two. As we've written several times, the last being roughly two years ago, "salivary gland cancers have not been shown to be causally-related to tobacco in any form." Precisely, the kind of chewing tobacco Gwynn used does have some risk of oral cancer, but not parotid gland cancer, which is the kind to which he succumbed.

Don't just take our word for it. Supporting this view is the American Medical Association and the Mayo Clinic, which states on its website's Salivary Gland Cancer page: "Tobacco use increases the risk of many types of head and neck cancers, but it doesn't appear to play a role in the development of salivary gland cancer."

If this case gets to a jury, the Altria Group — previously known as Phillip Morris -- will no doubt attempt to show other possible causes for the type of cancer that claimed Gwynn. Or cite medical uncertainty, as the Mayo Clinic states: "It's not clear what causes salivary gland cancer." And on the merits, it appears that the tobacco giant could be on solid legal ground.

But when seen through the eyes of a juror, the optics are bad.

A primary reason Gwynn was considered one the baseball's all-time best pure hitters was because he possessed superior vision at the plate. He was patient, selective. He picked out a pitch and crushed it. And similarly, if a settlement isn't reached and a sympathetic, hometown jury in San Diego is empaneled, the optics of this case may provide jurors a golden opportunity to pick their pitch and swing for the fences.