On May 18, 2017, in an important ruling for smokers, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that federal law does not bar smokers from using the landmark Engle tobacco class action findings to establish strict liability and negligence claims.
The appeals court, in a case heard en banc (that is, with all judges sitting), reversed an earlier panel ruling, Law360 reports. The earlier ruling said that Earl Graham, whose wife died of smoking-related lung cancer and was part of the original Engle class, could not rely on the jury’s conclusions in Engle, including that smoking causes certain diseases and that tobacco companies hid smoking’s dangers.Florida Has the Right to Regulate Cigarettes
R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Philip Morris International had argued that by passing legislation that does not ban cigarettes, Congress has established a policy of allowing the sale of tobacco products. But in Thursday’s decision, written by Judge William Pryor, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that nothing in the federal laws “reflects a federal objective to permit the sale or manufacture of cigarettes.” The state of Florida is well within its rights to regulate cigarette sales and impose tort liability on tobacco companies, the court said.
“R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris would have us presume that Congress established a right to sell cigarettes based on a handful of federal labeling requirements,” the Eleventh Circuit said. “We decline to do so.”
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The appeals court also denied the tobacco companies’ argument that use of the Engle jury’s findings violates their due process rights. The Eleventh Circuit said that a review of the original Engle proceedings showed that the jury decided common elements of the negligence and strict liability claims against tobacco companies, Law360 reports. The companies had an opportunity to be heard throughout the lengthy trial, the court said. “We recognize that the Engle court defined a novel notion of res judicata, but we cannot say that the substance of that doctrine or its application in these trials was so unfair as to violate the constitutional guarantee of due process,” the appeals court said.
The jury in the 1994 Engle case returned a $145 billion verdict against tobacco companies on behalf of a class of about 700,000 people in Florida. The case involved claims of injustices allegedly conducted by tobacco firms against smokers, according to ScotusBlog. Allegations ranged from fraud claims to claims that cigarettes are inherently dangerous.
The Florida Supreme Court overturned that decision in 2006 and decertified the class, but allowed class members to bring individual suits using the jury’s findings about smoking-related diseases and the tobacco companies’ actions to conceal or omit information about the addictive nature of cigarettes with the intention that smokers and the public would rely on this information to their detriment.
Large Verdicts in Engle Progeny Cases
Engle progeny cases have led to large verdicts. In 2016, R.J. Reynolds was hit with a $29 million verdict. That lawsuit was filed on behalf of a plaintiff whose wife died from injuries related to chain smoking. Jurors awarded $20 million in punitive damages and $8.8 million in compensatory damages, Law360 noted. Punitive damages are typically awarded as an additional form of punishment when jurors feel the liable party’s actions warrant such action. In this case, the widower asked for $5 million for pain and suffering and $300,000 to cover medical expenses. He asked for $14 million in punitive damages. The plaintiff was married to his wife for 29 years before her death from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
A federal district judge decided that Graham could rely on the Engle findings for his claims. A jury awarded him $2.75 million award against R.J. Reynolds that was later reduced to $550,000, and a $275,000 award against Philip Morris. According to court documents, these sums took into account the determination that the deceased woman was 70 percent at fault.
But in April 2015, an Eleventh Circuit panel found that the claims wrongly imposed a duty on all cigarette makers that they breached every time they put a cigarette on the market. That result was inconsistent with Congress’s aim to give consumers the right to choose whether to smoke, the panel said. This ruling represented a significant win for tobacco companies—but this was the only ruling thus far to bar plaintiffs from using Engle findings to support their claims. In January 2016, though, the Eleventh Circuit decided to rehear the case at the widower’s request.
Legal Help for Those with Cigarette-Related Illnesses
If you or someone you know experienced an illness or death associated with cigarettes, please contact Parker Waichman LLP for a free, no-obligation case evaluation. Call 1-800-LAW-INFO.