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Punitive Damages Ruling Overturned in Engle Progeny Tobacco Case

 

Earlier this month, a Florida appeals court overturned a ruling which held that R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. was to pay a $5 million punitive damage award to the estate of a smoker who died of lung cancer.

The estate of Valton Sheffield, who died in 2007, filed a lawsuit against tobacco companies including R.J. Reynolds. An Orange County jury awarded $1.8 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. R.J. Reynolds subsequently argued that a circuit judge applied a pre-1999 version of state punitive damage laws to the case. Changes made to the laws in 1999 could have shielded R.J. Reynolds from paying punitive damages.

The recent overturn was a 2-1 decision by a panel of the 5th District Court of Appeals. Appeals-court judges James Edwards and Jay Cohen agreed with the tobacco company, ordering that the dispute go back to circuit court. In his dissent, though, Judge Brian Lambert stated that the pre-1999 punitive damages law should apply because Sheffield was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1994.

Although the majority overturned the punitive damage award, it acknowledged that its ruling would conflict with the decisions of other states, and therefore, suggested that the Florida Supreme Court hear the case.

Sheffield’s case is known as an “Engle progeny case,” which was one of thousands of lawsuits filed in Florida against tobacco companies. Those cases stem from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling that established critical findings about issues such as the dangers of smoking and misrepresentation by cigarette smokers.

In that 2006 case, the Florida Supreme Court decertified a massive class action lawsuit, which was initially filed in 1994 by a Miami Beach pediatrician named Howard Engle for injuries suffered because of the health effects of smoking. The ruling, and the special procedural advantages granted by the court, resulted in former class members filing thousands of individual lawsuits against cigarette manufacturers, stating that cigarettes caused their respective illnesses. The suits have created a constant stream of filings in Florida state and federal courts. To date, there have been well over 4,000 cases filed, although many were found to have invalid claims or were dismissed. Many of the remaining cases have resulted in jury verdicts for the plaintiffs, and with those verdicts, numerous appeals and the presentation of various legal issues.

The Engle progeny cases were also in the headlines recently, as a Broward County judge was disqualified from 12 progeny cases after he disclosed ex parte communication with a plaintiff’s lawyer. The Fourth District Court of Appeals granted a petition to disqualify Broward Circuit judge William W. Haury Jr. from those cases. It was discovered that Haury had been close friends with a lawyer for a plaintiff, and had disclosed a conversation with that attorney regarding the consolidation of cases in tobacco litigation.

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