Another Engle Smoking Class Action Decision In Florida

On August 17, 2012, the Florida District Court of Appeal issued its decision in Castleman v. R.J. Reynolds Tobaco Co., 97 So.3d 875 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2012) [PDF].  The case represents another decision arising out of the Engle class action against the tobacco company, jurisprudence which Abnormal Use has been following for some time now.  Prior posts on the subject can be found here. As a reminder, the Engle class is comprised of Florida citizens and residents, and their survivors, “who have suffered, presently suffer, or who have died from diseases and medical conditions caused by their addiction to cigarettes that contain nicotine.”  Those who fall into that class enjoy, inter alia, an extended limitations period for filing suit and res judicata on several findings of fact.

Two other dates are extremely important for those seeking membership in the class.  First, the class member(s) have to show that their tobacco-related disease or condition first manifested itself before the trial court’s order certifying the class, which was filed on November 21, 1996.  Second, suit must have been filed before January 11, 2008.

And now to the facts of this case.  Lewis Castleman started smoking cigarettes at the age of 19 in 1953.  He continued to smoke for 30 years but quit in 1983.  It was not until the early 1990′s that he began experiencing shortness of breath and chest pain, and it was not until 1998, when he underwent heart bypass surgery, that his doctors linked the symptoms to his smoking history.

Mr. Castleman and his wife sought membership in the Engle class, but the trial court denied them membership.  The appeals court affirmed summary judgment for R.J. Reynolds in this case, holding that because Mr. Castleman did not attribute his symptoms to his smoking history until 1998, he did not meet the class definition as of November 21, 1996 because the disease or condition had not “manifested” by the applicable date.

The appeals court relied on another case, Frazier v. Philip Morris USA, Inc. [PDF], in which the Third District Court of Appeal considered the definition of “manifestation” and held that symptoms such as shortness of breath and persistent coughing did not constitute a sufficient legal basis for intiating a lawsuit against a tobacco company – there must be something more that causes the individual to attribute the symptoms to tobacco use.  Because Mr. Castleman did not make that connection until 1998, the court reasoned in this case that the condition did not “manifest” itself before the date of the court’s order.

It strikes me that the courts in these cases are defining “manifestation” in a way that is 180 degrees from the way it is interpreted in many other cases.  It is strange to have a plaintiff arguing for an earlier manifestation date; usually, under traditional discovery rule interpretation, it is the defendants arguing that the plaintiff “should have known” that his disease was caused by the product at issue at an earlier date than the plaintiff cares to acknowledge.  In these cases, however, to have a chance at class membership, the plaintiffs are actually arguing for the earlier date, so that they can get the benfit of the Engle class provisions.  We will continue to monitor – and report on – this very interesting class as it develops.

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