By Leah S. Poniatowski, J.D.
A state appellate court in Florida misapplied the abuse of discretion standard when reviewing a jury award for noneconomic damages granted to an adult child of a smoker who died from lung cancer attributed to her cigarette smoking, the Florida high court determined. Additionally, the appellate court also improperly applied a damages cap as there was no legal precedent to support imposing that limitation and, thus, the state high court quashed the appellate decision and remanded for reinstatement of the award (Odom v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., September 20, 2018, Pariente, B.).
After a smoker died from lung cancer, her daughter brought claims for strict liability, negligence, fraud by concealment, and conspiracy to commit fraud by concealment against RJR in Florida state court, alleging that her mother’s death was caused by her addiction to cigarettes. In the first phase of the trial, the jury determined that the smoker was a member of the Engle class and then found for the daughter, awarding her $6 million in compensatory damages, reduced to $4.5 million after deciding that the smoker was 25 percent at fault. It also concluded that punitive damages were justified. After the second phase of the trial, which was about the proper amount of punitive damages to be awarded, the jury awarded the daughter $14 million in punitive damages. The trial court denied RJR’s post-trial motions to set aside the verdict, for a new trial, and for remittitur of the compensatory award, and entered judgment for $18.5 million against the tobacco company. RJR appealed.
Appellate decision. The appellate court vacated both awards on the ground that the compensatory damages award was excessive compared to other awards in comparable cases (see Products Liability Law Daily’sDecember 1, 2016 analysis). Courts have distinguished between compensatory damages awards to spouses and to adult children, the appellate court explained. Florida courts have ruled that regardless of the strength of the emotional bond between an adult child and his or her decedent parent, an adult child who lives independent of the parent during the parent’s smoking-related illness and death is not entitled to a multi-million dollar compensatory damages award, with one court finding a $400,000 award to be "generous." Based on this line of precedent, the $6 million award awarded to the daughter in this case for the loss of her mother was excessive. The appellate court noted that the daughter was financially independent of her mother, the daughter was married with her own children, and the mother had been living with her long-time partner. The Supreme Court of Florida granted review of the appellate court’s determination of the noneconomic damages award.
Remittitur review error. The state high court explained that the abuse of discretion standard the appellate court applied when reviewing the trial court’s denial of the motion for remittitur had been misapplied. Governing case precedent holds that appellate courts "must fully recognize the superior vantage point of the trial judge and should apply the ‘reasonableness’ test to determine whether the trial judge abused his discretion." According to Florida law, adult children of decedents may claim noneconomic damages under the wrongful death statute when there is no surviving spouse, and there is no statutory requirement that the adult child be financially dependent on the decedent. With respect to damages awards, trial courts are obligated to determine whether an award is excessive and, if so, the court may award a remittitur. The Florida statute governing remittitur provides factors to be considered, and the state high court has acknowledged that there is a value, however limited, to reviewing awards in similar cases. Ultimately, the determination of damages is resolved by the jury, using their "enlightened conscience" as tempered by the caution not to be influenced by sympathy or prejudice. In order for an award to be found excessive it must "shock the judicial conscience," for which there was no direct precedent, but an award for punitive damages in an Engle progeny case that exceed the plaintiff’s request was held not to be shocking.
In the case at bar, the state high court concluded that the appellate court misapplied the abuse of discretion standard because there was no discussion or even an acknowledgement of the trial court’s analysis of the remittitur denial, which the high court observed was well-reasoned. Further, the appellate court did not consider any of the remittitur statute factors or uncover any passion in the jury’s verdict. Finally, the appellate court relied upon four appellate decisions, two of which the trial court had concluded were distinguishable, without considering state high court precedent; thus, the appellate court’s review fell below what the abuse of discretion standard required.
Damages cap error. The state high court also held that the appellate court’s creation of a bright-line damages cap in the circumstances of the case at bar was not supported by legislation or by high court precedent. The case law upon which the appellate court relied when establishing the cap did not support the appellate court’s actions, the high court stated. The state legislature has never imposed a cap for wrongful death noneconomic damages or required any other conditions to be eligible for those damages. The state high court also observed that the remittitur statutes did not include "type of relationship" as a factor to consider whether an award is excessive. The high court also emphasized that courts "must resist the urge" to find an award excessive simply because it exceeds what the court considered the jury should allow.
In the case at bar, the jury learned of the closeness of the daughter to her mother, the anguish both suffered as a result of the cancer diagnosis, the support the daughter provided in the three years of treatment until her mother’s death, and how the death has impacted the daughter. Evidence was also presented that the mother had a life expectancy of another 24.5 years. Further, RJR did not suggest an amount or range of damages to the jury, choosing to leave it to the "good judgment and common sense" of the jury, after the daughter had advocated a $5 million award. The state high court noted the difficulty for parties like RJR who do not present any values to later challenge a jury award. Because the trial court’s remittitur denial was based on undisputed evidence of the relationship between the daughter and her mother and RJR did not proffer anything to suggest the jury acted out of passion or prejudice, the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it denied RJR’s motion for remittitur. Moreover, multimillion awards for noneconomic damages for financially independent adult children are supported by law. Therefore, the appellate court’s ruling was quashed and the matter remanded to reinstate the final judgment, in addition to attorney fees awarded to the daughter.
This case is No. SC17-563.
Attorneys: Rosalyn Sia Baker-Barnes (Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley, PA) for Gwendolyn E. Odom. William L. Durham II (King & Spalding LLP) for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
Companies: R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
MainStory: TopStory TobaccoProductsNews DamagesNews FloridaNews
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