Allison Torres Burtka
In the first case of the so-called Engle progeny to reach the Florida Supreme Court, the court has declined to review a lower court’s decision upholding $3.3 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages for the widow of a smoker. (R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Martin, No. SC11-483 (Fla. July 19, 2011).)
In Engle v. Liggett Group in 2006, the Florida Supreme Court threw out a $145 billion punitive damages award and decertified a class of smokers and their survivors. Instead, it allowed the plaintiffs to pursue their claims individually, using Engle’s findings regarding the tobacco companies’ liability. Certain findings were given res judicata effect. (945 So. 2d 1246 (Fla. 2006).)
After the trial court in Martin entered judgment on the jury verdict, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. (RJR) appealed, arguing that Engle had been applied incorrectly. The appellate court disagreed, affirming the lower court’s judgment and noting that the punitive damages award “overcomes the presumption of excessiveness” under Florida law and “satisfies due process in view of the evidence of decades-long wanton conduct by RJR.”
“By leaving that ruling intact, the supreme court paved the way for juries to continue to consider all the evidence regarding the fraud and deceit of the cigarette industry and the tragic toll it's taken on American families,” said Robert Loehr of Pensacola, Florida, who represents the plaintiff.
Martin was the first Engle case to reach the appellate level. The plaintiff noted in her brief to the state supreme court, “After 17 years of litigation, the first Engle class member has plowed through RJR’s endlessly repetitious defenses to obtain a fully reviewed final judgment. Martin did not misapply Engle, but followed that decision exactly as directed.”
The Florida Supreme Court’s order “is important because we now know what the supreme court says is not inconsistent” with Engle, said M. Stephen Turner of Tallahassee, Florida, who also represents the plaintiff.
Loehr agreed. “The court provided clarity and assurance that court procedures like those in Martin are unlikely to be disturbed on appeal,” he said. “This assurance is important for all other Engle cases and should result in an increased number of cases being tried. The defendants have loudly and continuously complained, in court and in the press, that procedures similar to those used in Martin would result in reversal, which has had a chilling effect on the rate of trials.”
RJR has said it will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The results of other Engle cases have been mixed. In July, a jury sided with the tobacco manufacturer in Weingart v. R.J. Reynolds; a jury awarded $6 million in compensatory damages and $34 million in punitive damages in Allen v. R.J. Reynolds in April. LawyersUSA reported that of 46 Engle cases tried by last June, plaintiffs had won 33.