Punitive Damages OK In Engle Suits Says Florida Supreme Court

Prior to March 17, 2016, there was a Florida appellate court split as to whether Engle progeny plaintiffs may seek punitive damages in negligence and strict liability claims. The Florida Supreme Court has reportedly now settled the controversy, concluding “that the widow of a smoker who died of lung cancer can seek punitive damages against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. on strict liability and negligence claims, resolving an appellate split on the issue and marking a big win for Engle progeny plaintiffs.”

For those unfamiliar with “Engle progeny” litigation, the following is an extremely condensed overview.

In 1994, a class action lawsuit was filed against several tobacco companies in Dade County, Florida on behalf of all smokers nationwide. Class representative, Howard Engle, “claimed that he smoked multiple packs of cigarettes daily since he was in college and was unable to quit despite multiple attempts even after contracting emphysema, continuing to smoke until his death.” The class action was originally certified, but was subsequently limited to only Florida residents. The case was then tried in three phases. The first phase, the liability phase, resulted in eight findings, referred to as the “Engle findings,” which include:

1) that smoking cigarettes  causes aortic aneurysm, bladder cancer, cerebrovascular disease, cervical cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, coronary heart disease, esophageal cancer, kidney cancer, laryngeal cancer, lung cancer (specifically, adenocarinoma, large cell carcinoma, small cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma), complications of pregnancy, oral cavity/tongue cancer, pancreatic cancer, peripheral vascular disease, pharyngeal cancer, and stomach cancer);

2) that nicotine in cigarettes is addictive;

3) that the defendants placed cigarettes on the market that were defective and unreasonably dangerous;

4) that the defendants concealed or omitted material information not otherwise known or available knowing that the material was false or misleading or failed to disclose a material fact concerning the health effects or addictive nature of smoking cigarettes or both;

5) that the defendants agreed to conceal or omit information regarding the health effects of cigarettes or their addictive nature with the intention that smokers and the public would rely on this information to their detriment;

6) that all of the defendants sold or supplied cigarettes that were defective

7) that all of the defendants sold or supplied cigarettes that, at the time of sale or supply, did not conform to representations of fact made by said defendants; and

8) that all of the defendants were negligent.

Engle v. Liggett Grp., Inc., 945 So. 2d 1246, 1276-77 (Fla. 2006).

In the second phase, the Miami jury awarded “a record $144 billion in punitive damages” broken down by company as follows: “$73.9 billion by Philip Morris, Inc., $36.2 billion by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., $17.5 billion by Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co., $16.2 billion by Lorillard Tobacco Co., and $790 million by Liggett Group.” 4-42 Products Liability Practice Guide § 42.05.  The appellate court then reversed the award with instructions to decertify the class. However, smokers were allowed to pursue individual smoking related claims if they filed suit by January 10, 2008, and thousands of plaintiffs did just that. Numerous issues subsequently arose out of ensuing federal and state court actions, which we will not get into here, including the preclusive effect of the Engle findings, the application of federal preemption, and various other issues.  One of these issues was whether plaintiffs in Engle progeny suits could seek punitive damages, and a split among Florida appellate courts developed.

The recent Florida Supreme Court opinion, authored by Justice Barbara J. Pariente, settled the appellate court divide, holding that “there is no legal or principled basis for denying Engle progeny plaintiffs the right to pursue punitive damages on all properly pled counts.” Soffer v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 41 Fla. L. Weekly 101 (Mar. 17, 2016).

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