By Susan Lasser, J.D.
After finding that a deceased smoker shared liability equally with cigarette manufacturer, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, for causing her lung cancer and death, a Lee County, Florida jury awarded damages in the amount of $1.65 million to the decedent’s husband or her estate. In this Engle-progeny case, the jury determined that smoking the cigarette maker’s cigarettes was a legal cause of her death and that the manufacturer fraudulently concealed material information concerning the health effects and/or addictive nature of smoking cigarettes. This reliance, the jury found, was a legal cause of the decedent’s injuries (Maloney v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., July 18, 2017).
Complaint. The husband’s/estate’s first amended complaint in 2009 alleged that as a direct and proximate result of the decedent’s addiction to smoking the cigarettes of a number of tobacco companies, including those made by R.J. Reynolds, she "suffered bodily injury and died." The complaint asserted that the companies’ cigarettes caused her to develop one or more cigarette-related diseases or medical conditions that resulted in or substantially contributed to her death. The complaint sought compensatory and punitive damages in accordance with the Florida Supreme Court’s class action decision and mandate in Engle v. Liggett Group, Inc., 945 So.2d 1246 (Fla. 2006). It further noted that in approving the Engle Phase I class certification and trial, but ordering prospective class decertification, the Florida Supreme Court provided those who qualified for class member status an opportunity to resolve individual damages claims. The state high court held that specified liability and general causation findings by the Engle jury—including that the tobacco companies placed cigarettes on the market that were defective and unreasonably dangerous—did not need to be proved again in subsequent individual trials because those findings were given res judicata effect.
In Engle, the Florida Supreme Court approved certification for liability purposes of a class including all Florida citizens and residents and their survivors, who have suffered, currently suffer, or who have died from diseases and medical conditions caused by their addiction to cigarettes that contain nicotine. The decedent’s husband/estate asserted that the decedent, who died in September 2003, was a Florida citizen or resident who suffered and died from diseases and/or medical conditions caused by her addiction to cigarettes that contained nicotine, and, therefore, she and her survivors had Engle class member status.
The husband/decedent smoker’s estate claimed all damages allowed by Florida’s Wrongful Death Act, including resultant mental and emotional pain and suffering, medical and financial damages, and loss of the decedent’s love and companionship. The complaint stated that while the decedent "may bear some measure of fault … for causing  her respective smoking-related injuries and death," her acts/omissions concerning her efforts to quit smoking "were a partial proximate cause, in combination with the acts and omissions" of the defendant tobacco companies for her husband’s/estate’s injuries. Thus, apportionment of fault and damages was sought on the asserted claims of strict liability, negligence, breach of express and implied warranties, civil conspiracy to fraudulently conceal, fraudulent concealment, and punitive damages.
Verdict. The case went to trial against R.J. Reynolds. The jury agreed that the decedent was addicted to cigarettes containing nicotine, and that the addiction was a legal cause of her lung cancer and death. The jury also answered "yes" when asked whether smoking R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company’s cigarettes was a legal cause of the decedent’s lung cancer and death. The jury then allocated percentages of fault for the legal causes of the woman’s death, charging that she and R.J. Reynolds shared liability equally by assigning each a 50 percent percentage of fault.
Addressing the fraud and conspiracy claims, the jury found that the decedent "reasonably relied to her detriment" on the concealment or omission by R.J. Reynolds of material information about the health effects and/or addictive nature of smoking cigarettes, and that the reliance was a legal cause of her lung cancer and death. The jurors further determined that the decedent reasonably relied to her detriment on "the agreement to conceal or omit material information about the health effects or addictive nature of smoking cigarettes or both" and that this reliance was a legal cause of her injuries.
Damages. The jury calculated the widower’s damages, finding the total damages he sustained for the loss of his wife’s companionship and protection and his mental pain and suffering due to her lung cancer and death was $1 million in past damages and $400,000 in future damages. Added to that amount, the jury awarded the decedent’s estate or her husband $250,000 for medical expenses resulting from her lung cancer and death. Finally, the jury did not find by clear and convincing evidence that punitive damages were warranted against the tobacco company under the circumstances of the case.
The case is No. 07-CA-015578.
Attorneys: Craig Stevens and John Dill (Morgan & Morgan) for John Maloney. Steven Geise (Jones Day) for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
Companies: R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
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