Norwich - Just laughing can send Barbara Izzarelli into a choking fit.
Izzarelli, 50, learned Thursday that a federal judge had awarded her nearly $16 million in interest in addition to the $12 million she had already won last year in a jury trial against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
"I'm sorry," Izzarelli said Thursday as her laughter turned into coughing and choking. "I choke all the time. It's terrible. I'm having trouble expressing how happy I am."
Izzarelli, who developed cancer of the larynx, underwent surgery nearly 14 years ago. Her larynx was removed and as a result she now breathes through a hole in her throat. She lost her sense of smell and cannot eat solid foods.
Izzarelli said she smoked Salem cigarettes for 25 years and sued R.J. Reynolds in 1999. The case went to trial in federal court in Bridgeport in 2010. The jury awarded her $8 million in compensatory damages and Judge Stefan Underhill tacked on an additional $4 million in punitive damages.
The jury held that Salem cigarettes were dangerous and defective and the tobacco company acted in reckless disregard for the safety of its consumers.
"I know it was partly my fault because I chose to smoke," said Izzarelli, who said she started to smoke around the age of 12. "But they're making a harmful product. At the time, when I started smoking, I didn't know it was dangerous.
"It's really life-changing when you get sick. It was a hard adjustment. My family was devastated when they saw me just laying there so sick."
Izzarelli is the mother of four adult children and has three grandchildren. She lives in an apartment on Melrose Park Road and has been disabled since she underwent her operation. "It's been tough," she said. "It's a struggle every day."
Izzarelli's attorney, David Golub, said Underhill awarded the additional $15.7 million Wednesday because R.J. Reynolds refused to accept a reasonable settlement. The court rejected the tobacco company's claims that the interest was excessive.
"Tobacco companies have a nationwide policy to refuse to settle," said Golub. "The law in Connecticut is clear that tobacco companies will be liable for interest if they refuse reasonable settlement offers. The interest is more than the judgment. It's a terrific result, and they're being penalized for making her go through this for 11 years."
Golub said that in 2001 his side offered to settle for $400,000. The interest award dates back to 1999, when the case was first filed. He said Izzarelli's case was the first to come to trial in Connecticut and the first jury verdict against a tobacco company in New England.
The jury found Izzarelli's compensatory damages totaled $13.9 million, but ruled that both R.J. Reynolds and Izzarelli were responsible for her injuries. The jury decided that R.J. Reynolds was responsible for 58 percent of the damage while Izzarelli was responsible for 42 percent.
David Howard, spokesman for R.J. Reynolds, said the company plans to appeal the original ruling and the post-trial judgment.
In the meantime, Izzarelli said, she will patiently wait until she gets her settlement.
"I feel very positive that this is going to work," she said. "That it will all be over soon."