Appeals court upholds judgment against R.J. Reynolds

A Florida appeals court upheld Tuesday the first “Engle” smokers’ lawsuit verdict against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

Judges Nikki Clark and T. Kent Wetherell II of the 1st District Court of Appeals let stand the June 2009 decision by a jury in Pensacola, Fla., that awarded $3.3 million in compensation damages and $25 million in punitive damages from Reynolds to the family of Benny Martin.

Industry analysts and legal officials said in June 2009 that the case had the potential to set a new bar regarding damages from smokers’ lawsuits.

The judges said in their conclusion that the plaintiffs, particularly Martin’s widow, Matilde, produced “sufficient independent evidence to prove causation, detrimental reliance and entitlement to punitive damages.”

They also said that the punitive damages were not excessive, “and satisfies due process in view of the evidence of decades-long wanton conduct by RJR.”

David Howard, a spokesman for Reynolds, said that the company “is considering our appellate options, including seeking review of the case by the Florida Supreme Court.”

The judges’ ruling could be the “worst nightmare for tobacco defendants because the powerful Phase I findings will be applicable to Engle progeny trials in state court,” said Ed Sweda, a senior lawyer for the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University School of Law.

The Engle cases sprung from a decision in 2006 by the Florida Supreme Court that decertified a class-action lawsuit initially filed by Howard Engle. The 2006 ruling allowed former class members to file individual lawsuits stating that cigarettes caused their respective illnesses.

The cases involve consumers who smoked before a law went into effect requiring warning labels on cigarette packaging.

However, in July, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that plaintiffs bringing an Engle case before a federal court would have to individually prove two pivotal elements:

  • The cigarettes smoked by those involved in the case were defective.
  • The manufacturer withheld information, keeping the smoker from fully understanding the potentially addictive and defective nature of the cigarettes.

The reason why Reynolds was singled out in the Martin case is that he smoked Camel and Lucky Strike cigarette brands. In deciding the case, the jury ruled that the deceased smoker was 34 percent responsible for the lung-cancer damages and Reynolds was 66 percent at fault.

The 1st District appellate judges’ ruling comes less than a month after another Florida jury awarded the largest amount of punitive damages against Reynolds — $72 million — regarding an Engle lawsuit. That jury also awarded $8 million in compensatory damages.

Howard said that Reynolds is appealing that verdict.


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