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Court orders oral arguments in smoking death case

The state’s highest court has set oral arguments in an appeal of a punitive damages award against the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

The Florida Supreme Court, which accepted jurisdiction this May, will hear the case March 8, court filings show.

At trial, a jury found smoker James E. Schoeff 25 percent at fault in his death. He had “died from lung cancer caused by his addiction to cigarettes,” according to court documents. 

The suit is one of many Engle progeny cases in which the court, after a monumental 1994 class action, allowed individual smokers with claims against tobacco companies to each sue for their own damages.

Jurors awarded his wife, Joan Schoeff, $10.5 million in compensatory damages and $30 million in punitive damages, even after her lawyer asked jurors not to go above $25 million. 

The trial judge later reduced the compensatory damages award to almost $7.9 million but let stand the punitive damages amount. R.J. Reynolds appealed, calling the punitive damages “unconstitutionally excessive.”

The 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach agreed with RJR that the award “falls on the excessive side of the spectrum,” according to its opinion. One judge in the three-judge panel dissented.

Schoeff then appealed to the Supreme Court, noting the decision conflicted with other appellate courts in Florida. 

Written By

Jim Rosica is the Tallahassee-based Senior Editor for Florida Politics. He previously was the Tampa Tribune’s statehouse reporter. Before that, he covered three legislative sessions in Florida for The Associated Press. Jim graduated from law school in 2009 after spending nearly a decade covering courts for the Tallahassee Democrat, including reporting on the 2000 presidential recount. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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