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Philip Morris Wins Reversal of Florida ‘Engle’ Verdict

Altria Group Inc.’s Philip Morris USA won reversal of a $2 million Florida jury award in a wrongful-death case filed by the widower of a smoker who died of lung cancer.

The trial court erred in denying Philip Morris’s request to bar the claim because the lawsuit was filed too late, the Florida District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach said in a ruling today.

The lawsuit was filed in December 2007 by the estate of Shirley Barbanell, who died of lung cancer in April 1996 at the age of 73. Evidence demonstrated at a trial that Barbanell was aware before May 1990 that cigarette smoking had caused serious problems with her health, the appeals panel wrote.

“Although the decedent was not diagnosed with cancer until 1996, the critical event is not when an illness was actually diagnosed by a physician but when the disease or condition first manifested itself,” the appeals panel said.

The Florida Supreme Court in 2006 threw out a $145 billion punitive-damage verdict against the industry and ended a class action filed on behalf of the state’s smokers. The ruling, which permitted smokers in the class to sue individually, is known as the “Engle” decision, after Howard Engle, the lead plaintiff in the case.

‘Engle’ First

The Barbanell case is the first “Engle” claim to be overturned by an appeals court, Philip Morris said in a statement. The jury had awarded damages of $5.34 million, holding Barbanell about 64 percent responsible, which reduced the damages to $2 million, according to the statement.

“This is an important decision that could impact many of the claims being brought in the Engle cases,” Murray Garnick, a lawyer for Richmond, Virginia-based Altria, said in the statement. “The court reaffirmed that the four-year statute of limitations begins to run on a plaintiff’s claim when the plaintiff knew or should have known that he or she has suffered an injury caused by smoking.”

The ruling isn’t final and is subject to a request for a rehearing.

The case is Philip Morris USA Inc. v. Barbanell, 4D09-3987, Fourth District Court of Appeal of the State of Florida (West Palm Beach).

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