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Multimillion-dollar tobacco verdict upheld

A divided state appeals court this week upheld a nearly $6.4 million verdict in a case filed against cigarette-maker Philip Morris USA by the widow of a Jacksonville man who died of smoking-related illnesses.

A panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal, in a 2-1 decision, ruled Wednesday in favor of Mary Brown, who was awarded $6.375 million in 2015 after a trial in Duval County, according to state and county court records.

The case, which involved the death of Rayfield Brown, is one of thousands that were filed in Florida against tobacco companies in recent years. Those cases stem from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling that established critical findings about issues including the dangers of smoking and misrepresentation by cigarette makers.

In this week’s ruling, appeals court Chief Judge Brad Thomas and Judge Ross Bilbrey upheld the verdict without explanation. But Judge Allen Winsor dissented, arguing that a new trial should be held because of the jury deadlocking on some issues in the case but being instructed by the circuit judge to provide a verdict on issues where it was unanimous.

“The main question in this case is what happens when a deadlocked jury is instructed to reach whatever partial verdict it can — and to do so without any further deliberations.” Winsor wrote in a six-page dissent. “On the unusual facts of this case, I would hold that such an instruction leaves the jury incapable of producing a valid verdict. From the time jury deliberations begin until the time the jury reaches its final decision, jurors must be free to weigh and consider arguments and evidence, to consider other jurors’ points of view, to attempt to persuade fellow jurors, to argue and debate — in other words, the jury must be free to deliberate until the very end. Because this jury did not have that opportunity, we should reverse and remand for a new trial.”

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