Big Tobacco Takes Another Hit

A Florida jury recently ordered two cigarette companies to pay a total of $26.6 million to the widow of a longtime smoker who died of lung cancer after smoking for more than 50 years.

The verdict, handed down on March 24, was the latest in a string of “Engle progeny” cases to be submitted to Florida juries in recent years. Engle v. R.J. Reynolds was a landmark class-action lawsuit filed in 1994 against makers of cigarettes, in which a Florida jury awarded the plaintiffs $145 billion. This award was subsequently overturned by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006.

However, in doing so, the court reportedly did allow the approximately 700,000 Florida smokers in that class to pursue their claims individually. In addition, the state supreme court actually allowed the findings of the original jury pertaining to causation, addiction of cigarettes, negligence, and breach of implied warranty to stand, thereby reducing the burden of proof required in these subsequent actions. This likely has served as a significant advantage for plaintiffs’ counsel, who go to trial without having to jump the causation hurdle. As a result, the defendants’ strategy is also limited.

Of the 13 Engle progeny cases to reach juries in the last 13 months, plaintiffs have won 11. Counsel for the tobacco companies have alleged that each of these cases raises constitutional issues, though, because allowing one jury to rely on the findings of a prior jury that are totally unrelated to the individual smoker at each trial is in violation of both Florida law and due process.

Representatives for Philip Morris have said it will appeal the jury’s latest verdict on the grounds that the trial court improperly eliminated the majority of the plaintiff’s burden of proof. However, as of now, at least, it appears as though the latest will be one of a continuing string of verdicts to strike blows to the tobacco industry.

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