One justice described the relationship between Juanita Thurston and Gwendolyn Odom as a “textbook example” of love between a mother and a daughter.
But the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with whether Odom, an adult, should be able to receive millions of dollars in damages from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. because of the smoking-related death of her mother.
Justices questioned attorneys for Odom and R.J. Reynolds about issues related to damage awards for adult children in wrongful-death cases — as opposed to damages that can be awarded to surviving spouses or minor children. The 4th District Court of Appeal in 2016 overturned a multimillion-dollar award for Odom, prompting her attorneys to go to the Supreme Court.
David Sales, an attorney for Odom, described a close relationship in which Odom cared for her mother and watched Thurston “waste away” because of cancer. His arguments appeared to have support from Justice Barbara Pariente.
“This couldn’t have been a closer bond,” Pariente said. “This could not be a more textbook example of the love that a mother and daughter have for one another.”
But Jeffrey Bucholtz, an attorney for R.J. Reynolds, said a jury award to Odom was “an order of magnitude higher” than damages approved in similar cases in the past.
“This is not an award that is a little bit higher than awards in similar cases,” Bucholtz said.
A Palm Beach County jury found R.J. Reynolds at fault in Thurston’s death and awarded $6 million in compensatory damages. That amount was reduced to $4.5 million, because Thurston was held to be 25 percent responsible for her illness. The jury also awarded $14 million in punitive damages.
But the 4th District Court of Appeal said the compensatory-damage award was excessive for a case brought by an adult child of dead smoker. It rejected the compensatory-damage award and, as an extension, the amount of punitive damages.
“Although the evidence established that plaintiff and her mother had a very close and unique relationship, at the time of Ms. Thurston’s illness and death, plaintiff was not living with Ms. Thurston and was not financially or otherwise dependent on her,” the appeals court ruled in November 2016. “Instead, plaintiff was married with two children of her own and Ms. Thurston was living with her long-time partner. Although plaintiff took her mother to many of her appointments and was devastated by her decline and subsequent death, the relationship between an adult child living independent of their parent is simply not the type of relationship which can justify the magnitude of the plaintiff’s compensatory damage award.”
The Supreme Court, which likely will take months to issue a ruling, was divided about even taking up the case. Pariente, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince supported hearing the case, while justices Charles Canady, Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson disagreed, according to a December decision.
The Odom case is one of thousands in Florida known as “Engle progeny” cases. Such cases are linked to a 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling that established critical findings about the health dangers of smoking and misrepresentation by cigarette makers.