Engle Progeny bears more fruit: Brown decision affirmed

Abnormal Use has been following the so-called “Engle progeny” cases with interest as they continue to wind their way through the courts.  On September 21, 2011, a court of appeals in Florida dealt another blow to the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company v. Brown, 70 So.3d 707 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2011) by upholding a jury’s award of compensatory damages to the spouse of a deceased smoker.

This is a well written decision by Judge Dorian K. Damoogian.  It provides a brief and understandable history of the Engle case line to provide context for the Brown decision, and then does the same for the specific procedural history of the Brown case.

Mr. Brown, the plaintiff’s decedent and spouse, was a long-time smoker of cigarettes manufactured by a predecessor of R.J. Reynolds (“RJR”), and he died of esophageal cancer he developed as a result of the habit.  After Engle was decertified, Mrs. Brown sued the tobacco company, relying on certain factual findings that came out of Engle to prove her case for strict liability, negligence, fraud by concealment, and civil conspiracy-fraud by concealment.

The first phase of the Brown trial was devoted to determining whether or not Mr. Brown qualified as an Engle class member, which would entitle his spouse to the aforementioned factual findings.  To prove this, Mrs. Brown had to show that her husband was addicted to RJR cigarettes containing nicotine; and, if so, was his addiction a legal cause of his death.

After the jury found both of these facts to be the case, the trial moved to phase II, in which the jury was to determine (i) whether RJR’s conduct was a legal cause of Mr. Brown’s death; (ii) comparative fault; and (iii) damages. Before opening statements, the trial court instructed the jury that because it had determined Mr. Brown to be a member of the Engle class, the following findings were binding upon it:

“One, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company failed to exercise the degree of care with which a reasonable cigarette manufacturer would exercise under like circumstances. Two, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company placed cigarettes on the market that were defective and unreasonably dangerous.”

The court advised the jury that Mrs. Brown had admitted Mr. Brown was comparatively negligent.  The jury found RJR’s negligence was a legal cause of Mr. Brown’s death; RJR’s defective and unreasonably dangerous cigarettes were a legal cause of Mr. Brown’s death; and RJR and Mr. Brown were each 50 percent responsible for Mr. Brown’s death. The jury awarded Mrs. Brown $1.2 million in compensatory damages, which the court later reduced to $600,000 based on the jury’s apportionment of fault. The trial court entered a final judgment for Mrs. Brown.

At issue in this appeal was the viability of Mrs. Brown’s negligence and strict liability claims.  As the appeals court framed it, “RJR primarily argues that the trial court gave the Engle findings overly broad preclusive effect, relieving the plaintiff of her burden to prove that RJR committed particular negligent acts in violation of a duty of care owed to Mr. Brown and to prove that the cigarettes Mr. Brown smoked contained a specific defect that injured Mr. Brown.”

To no avail.  The appeals court upheld the findings of the trial court as well as the award to Mrs. Brown.  As we have outlined in a prior post, the main dispute was a discussion between claim preclusion and issue preclusion, and the effect and implications of the differences between those two concepts.   It appears RJR was still using the same argument that failed it in the Martin case.  It didn’t work this time, either.

The appeals court made the following holdings in affirming the trial court’s decision:

1.  sufficient evidence established that smoker was addicted to cigarettes containing nicotine;
2.  prior jury finding that tobacco company placed defective and unreasonably dangerous cigarettes on the market conclusively established the conduct element of strict liability claim; and
3.  prior jury finding that tobacco company failed to exercise the proper degree of care conclusively established the duty and breach elements of negligence claim.
The Engle findings are a huge hammer for the plaintiffs in these cases, and we expect to see more awards to plaintiffs as a result of the decertified class.  It’s hard to believe that in 2011 we are still seeing verdicts against tobacco companies for smoking addiction claims.

Comments are closed.