Defense Verdict in Latest Big Tobacco Case

According to this recent piece in the Montreal Gazzette, of all publications, a Florida jury last week found that two of the nation’s tobacco giants, Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, were not responsible for causing a man’s laryngeal cancer after he smoked an average of 1.5 packs of cigarettes per day for 37 years. The case was Willis v. RJ Reynolds & Philip Morris USA.

This was the latest trial in the series of “Engle progeny” cases, as we previously discussed here, wherein approximately 8,000 Florida smokers have filed lawsuits against tobacco companies in the wake of a 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling. Howard Engle, a Miami doctor and smoker, lent his name to a class action law suit that represented approximately 700,000 ill or deceased Florida smokers. In that case, $145 billion in punitive damages was awarded to the plaintiffs. The decision was later overturned by the state’s appellate court and supreme court, both of which held that the award was excessive.

The ruling allowed plaintiffs in the class to file individual lawsuits against tobacco companies. Interestingly, it also allowed findings of the original jury pertaining to causation, addiction of cigarettes, negligence, and breach of implied warranty to stand, thus significantly reducing the plaintiffs’ burden of proof in these cases. This ruling was hotly contested by the tobacco industry, which argued that allowing one jury to rely on findings of a separate jury raises due process issues. Subsequently, in July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit issued its ruling in Brown v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 611 F.3d 1324 (11th Cir. 2010) [PDF], which established limits on plaintiffs’ referencing the Engle case in meeting their burden of proof at trial. (See R.J. Reynolds’ press release on this ruling here.). Tobacco companies have argued that courts have since failed to fully comply with this ruling.

This most recent trial, which lasted three and a half weeks, was actually the second time the case was tried. The first trial reportedly resulted in a mistrial when one juror wanted to award the plaintiff $50 million, and other jurors wanted to award $12 to $15 million. The Plaintiff, who was 16 years old when he began smoking, said that he began his days by smoking a cigarette and that he sometimes would wake in the middle of the night to smoke. His lawyers reportedly said that he tried to quit several times by leaving his cigarettes in his car when he went to work. The defense argued at trial that the Plaintiff made a conscious decision to continue to smoke, even after becoming aware of health risks.

After the defense victory, Philip Morris issued a statement, wherein a representative said that this verdict “shows that juries recognize that plaintiffs are responsible for their own smoking decisions. . . Even with rulings by the trial court that gave the plaintiff an unfair advantage in violation of Florida law and due process, the verdict for the defense shows that Philip Morris USA still has powerful defenses.” This certainly was an important victory for the tobacco industry, which has otherwise been hit with a series of big losses in these cases.

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