Florida Supreme Court Stubs Out Big Tobacco Appeals of Multi-Million Dollar Verdicts
FlaglerLive | July 24, 2011
A major Florida Supreme Court ruling this week against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. is already having ripple effects, with justices rejecting three other industry appeals of multimillion-dollar verdicts.
The court declined to hear the appeals, siding with spouses of people who died because of smoking-related illnesses. The cases were filed in Escambia and Alachua counties and involved verdicts ranging from $3.35 million to $15.75 million.
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Each of the appeals included legal arguments that were similar to a closely watched case decided by the Supreme Court on Tuesday. That Escambia County case, filed by the widow of Lucky Strike smoker Benny Martin, led to a $28.3 million verdict against R.J. Reynolds.
Attorney Jimmy Gustafson, whose firm represents sick smokers or their survivors in 494 cases, said the tobacco industry has relied on similar arguments in defending a flood of lawsuits that stems from a 2006 Supreme Court ruling.
“The Martin decision affects all of the cases in the whole state,” said Gustafson, whose firm, Searcy, Denney, Scarola, Barnhart & Shipley, represents one of the plaintiffs, Franklin Campbell, in a case decided by the Supreme Court this week.
Justices declined Tuesday to hear arguments in the Martin case, effectively approving a 1st District Court of Appeal ruling to uphold the verdict.
R.J. Reynolds immediately said it would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, contending that its due-process rights were violated in the Martin decision.
The company also was a defendant in each of the other appeals rejected this week by the Supreme Court. A spokesman said the cigarette maker would not comment beyond its remarks after the Martin decision.
Gustafson, however, said he expects R.J. Reynolds to appeal those other cases to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“My money is on the cigarette companies taking every appeal they can possibly take,” he said.
Smokers or their survivors have filed thousands of lawsuits against the tobacco industry since the Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that such cases should be heard individually instead of as a class action.
That Supreme Court ruling also established critical findings that could be used in the individual cases. Those findings included establishing that cigarettes cause a wide range of diseases, that nicotine in cigarettes is addictive and that tobacco companies concealed information about the health effects of smoking.
The lawsuits have been dubbed the “Engle progeny” cases, after the name of a plaintiff in the 2006 ruling.
In the Martin case, R.J. Reynolds challenged the way lower courts applied the framework and findings in the Engle ruling. It contended that Martin’s widow was not forced to prove the company’s liability.
The Supreme Court did not explain its decision to reject the other three appeals. But the 1st District Court of Appeal cited the Martin case when it ruled against the industry in the other lawsuits.
The case with the largest verdict, $15.75 million, was filed in Alachua County against R.J. Reynolds by Amanda Jean Hall, the widow of smoker Arthur Hall.
An Escambia County jury, meanwhile, ordered R.J. Reynolds to pay $6.2 million to Carolyn Gray, the widow of Charles Robert Gray.
R.J. Reynolds also would have to pay most of the $3.35 million verdict in an Escambia County case filed by Campbell, whose wife Betty Jean Campbell died of smoking-related illnesses. Cigarette makers Philip Morris USA and Liggett Group also would have to pay small parts of that verdict.
–Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida