Plaintiffs Lawyer in $300 Million Florida Smoking Suit: ‘The Jury Was Impressed by the Numbers’

The record, so far, hasn’t been very good for the tobacco companies in the so-called Engle progeny smoker suits. They’ve won, by our count, just two of the ten cases to go to trial, and the damages awards have been climbing. The first Engle progeny trial resulted in an $8 million verdict against Philip Morris in February. In August, R.J. Reynolds lost a $30 million verdict. And on Thursday, a Broward County jury ordered Philip Morris to pay a whopping $300 million–$56 million in compensatory damages and $244 million in punitives–to Cindy Naugle, a former smoker who claimed the company’s negligence was to blame for her emphysema. Here’s Bloomberg’s story on the jury verdict.

The Litigation Daily spoke with Naugle’s attorney, Robert Kelley of Kelley and Uustal on Friday. We wanted to know, first of all, why this award was so much larger than those in previous Engle trials. One reason, he said, was that this was the first trial in which the jury heard about the “real financial resources” of Philip Morris. The company, he said, claimed that it was worth only $1.7 billion. But he presented witnesses who said that in just the first three quarters of 2009, Philip Morris paid $3.1 billion in dividends to Altria, its parent company. “We broke it down and it was about $10 million a day,” he said. “The jury was impressed by the numbers.”

The Engle progeny trials resulted from a controversial 2006 ruling by the Florida Supreme Court that decertified the enormous Engle nationwide class action, but held that individual plaintiffs could rely on the class action jury’s liability findings against the cigarettes online buy. The defendants have consistently blamed the state supreme court’s res judicata ruling for adverse results in the progeny trials.

Naugle is no exception. “From the beginning, this case was marked by a fundamentally unfair and unconstitutional trial plan that allowed the jury to rely on findings by a prior jury,” said Murray Garnick, associate general counsel for Altria, in a statement Friday. Philip Morris, which was represented at trial by Thomas Quigley of Winston & Strawn and Jennifer Brown of Shook, Hardy & Bacon, said it will “seek further review” of the Naugle jury verdict.

Plaintiffs lawyer Kelley, though, disputed the significance of the state supreme court’s res judicata ruling. “The findings are worth very little,” he said. “We still have to prove that it was the addiction that caused the disease, while [defense lawyers] are saying that it was the choice that caused the disease.”


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