For the second time this week, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday agreed to take up a potentially far-reaching case involving a verdict against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. after a smoking-related death.
The two cases are among thousands of what are known as “Engle progeny” lawsuits filed in Florida against tobacco companies. The Engle progeny cases stemmed from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling that established critical findings about issues including the dangers of smoking and misrepresentation by cigarette makers.
The Supreme Court on Thursday decided to hear a dispute about $5 million in punitive damages that an Orange County jury awarded to the estate of Valton Sheffield, who died in 2007 of lung cancer. The 5th District Court of Appeal last year overturned the punitive-damages award, agreeing with R.J. Reynolds that a circuit judge improperly applied a pre-1999 version of a state punitive damages law to the case. Changes made to the law in 1999 could have shielded R.J. Reynolds from paying punitive damages.
While Sheffield’s estate took the dispute to the Supreme Court, both sides asked justices to resolve it because of conflicting opinions among appellate courts in the state.
“The (Supreme) Court should exercise jurisdiction because these conflicting decisions will necessarily produce differing results in legally and factually indistinguishable cases purely as a result of where an individual case is filed,” the estate’s attorneys wrote in a brief. “Unless the (Supreme) Court accepts jurisdiction and resolves the conflict, there will be two sets of punitive damages rules and remedies that apply to wrongful death cases brought pursuant to Engle, if the class member died after September 30, 1999. Recent history suggests that is a substantial number of cases.”
The Supreme Court on Tuesday said it would take up a separate case in which the 1st District Court of Appeal tossed out a multimillion-dollar verdict against R.J. Reynolds in a case filed by the estate of John C. Price. Both sides in the case asked the Supreme Court to resolve a key issue that involves proof that smokers relied on misleading information from tobacco companies about the health dangers of cigarettes.
Republished with permission from the News Service of Florida.