Though it raised concerns about a jury instruction, a state appeals court Wednesday upheld a nearly $35 million verdict against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in the death of a longtime smoker.
A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal sided with Colette O’Hara, who filed the lawsuit in Escambia County after the death of her husband, Garry O’Hara. A jury awarded $14.7 million in compensatory damages and $20 million in punitive damages.
R.J. Reynolds appealed on a series of grounds, but Wednesday’s ruling focused heavily on the propriety of a jury instruction sought by Colette O’Hara’s attorneys. The instruction involved an issue about whether Garry O’Hara relied on tobacco-company advertisements.
The appeals court found problems with the instruction but concluded it couldn’t determine whether the instruction affected the jury’s decision.
“We do not disagree that the instruction may have unduly swayed some jurors in favor of O’Hara,” said the nine-page ruling, written by appeals-court Judge Scott Makar and joined by judges Clay Roberts and Harvey Jay. “But we cannot determine from the record whether this effect on the jury was the cause of prejudice to RJR.”
The ruling provided few details about the case. But a 2015 Pensacola News Journal story about the verdict said Garry O’Hara was a 30-year Air Force veteran who started smoking at age 14 and was diagnosed with fatal lung cancer at age 49.