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Supreme Court refuses to take up tobacco case

In a victory for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, the Florida Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a case that initially involved a more than $23 billion verdict against the cigarette maker.

The estate of Michael Johnson Sr., a longtime smoker who died at age 36, asked the Supreme Court to take up the case after the 1st District Court of Appeal in February ordered a new trial. A three-judge panel of the appeals court blasted an attorney for the estate, pointing to the “depth and pervasiveness” of improper closing arguments in the Escambia County case.

The Supreme Court, as is common, did not explain its reasons for declining to take up the case, though two justices, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince, disagreed with the decision, according to an order posted on the Supreme Court website.

A jury initially awarded nearly $16.9 million in compensatory damages and $23.6 billion in punitive damages to the estate. But the trial judge later tossed out the punitive-damages award as excessive and ordered a new trial for R.J. Reynolds on punitive damages.

The February ruling by the appeals court required a new trial on the overall issues in the case, not just punitive damages.

 A brief filed in the Supreme Court said Johnson started smoking at age 13 and was diagnosed with lung cancer at age 35.

The case is one of thousands in Florida that are known as “Engle progeny” cases. Such cases are linked to a 2006 Supreme Court ruling that established critical findings about the health dangers of smoking and misrepresentation by cigarette makers.

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

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