Florida Top Court Affirms Ruling Enabling Tobacco Suits

Florida Top Court Affirms Ruling Making Tobacco Suits Easier
The Florida Supreme Court, in a 6-1 decision, rejected arguments by the tobacco companies that its ruling in the Engle case violated their constitutional right to due process of the law. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

The Florida Supreme Court reaffirmed its 2006 “Engle” ruling that made it easier for thousands of smokers to sue tobacco companies for smoking-related illnesses.

Florida’s high court today upheld a $2.5 million award to the family of a deceased smoker against Altria Group Inc.’s Philip Morris USA, Reynolds American Inc.’s R.J. Reynolds Tobacco and Vector Group Ltd.’s Liggett unit. The verdict was won by James Douglas, whose wife, Charlotte Douglas, died in 2008 of lung cancer at the age of 62.

The court, in a 6-1 decision, rejected arguments by the tobacco companies that its ruling in the Engle case violated their constitutional right to due process of law.

“We decline the defendants’ invitation to rewrite Engle,” Chief Justice Ricky Polston said in an opinion on behalf of a majority of the court.

In the 2006 ruling, Florida’s highest court decertified a statewide class action and threw out a $145 billion punitive damage verdict against the industry. At the same time, the court endorsed many jury findings in the case, including that the companies were negligent, conspired to hide information about the dangers of smoking and sold defective products. The court also ruled that individual class members could sue and could use the jury findings in their cases.

Companies’ Argument

The industry has argued that the ruling improperly restricts their ability to defend themselves at trial. Four of the seven current members of Florida’s Supreme Court were appointed after the Engle case was decided.

The ruling is known as the Engle decision after Howard Engle, the lead plaintiff in the case filed in 1994 on behalf of Florida smokers who were addicted to nicotine and developed cancer, heart disease and other illnesses. Engle, a Florida pediatrician, died in 2009.

Philip Morris, the biggest U.S. cigarette maker, said in its annual report last month that it faces about 4,800 post-Engle smoker claims in federal and state courts in Florida. No. 2 Reynolds is named in about 5,750, the company said in its annual report last month.

The U.S. Supreme Court last year declined Reynolds’ request that it review a $28.3 million verdict against it in an Engle suit.

Further Appeals

Philip Morris, which is based in Richmond, Virginia, said in a statement today that it plans to seek further court review in the case. Bryan Hatchell, a spokesman for Winston Salem, North Carolina-based Reynolds, didn’t immediately return a voice-mail message seeking comment on the ruling.

Tobacco companies have lost hundreds of millions of dollars in judgments in post-Engle cases, many of which are on appeal.

In the Douglas case, jurors awarded $5 million in damages against the three tobacco companies. The amount was cut to $2.5 million after the jury found Charlotte Douglas fifty-percent responsible for her own injuries.

The case is Philip Morris v. Douglas, No. 12-617, Florida Supreme Court (Tallahassee).

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