Products Liability Law Daily New trial rejected in cigarette action because jury’s finding of no addiction was reasonable
Tuesday, January 8, 2019

New trial rejected in cigarette action because jury’s finding of no addiction was reasonable

By Kathleen Bianco, J.D.

A new trial was not warranted in a tobacco-related case arising from the lung cancer-related death of a smoker following a jury verdict finding that the decedent had not been addicted to cigarettes containing nicotine, a federal district court in Florida ruled.

The representative of the decedent’s estate sought a new trial alleging that the jury’s verdict was against the weight of the evidence. The court, however, determined that the jury evaluated the parties’ evidence, which the jury was free to accept or reject, and found that the decedent had not been addicted (Starbuck v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., January 7, 2019, Molley, D.).

After a Florida resident developed and eventually died from lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), his widow filed suit against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Philip Morris USA, Inc., and Lorillard Tobacco Co., seeking compensatory and punitive damages in accordance with the Florida Wrongful Death Act, the Florida Survival Statute, and with the Florida Supreme Court’s class action decision and mandate in Engle v. Liggett Group, Inc., 945 So.2d 1246 (Fla. 2006). The decedent’s case had been tried three times with the first jury unable to reach a verdict; the second jury finding in favor of the cigarette manufacturers after determining that the decedent had not been addicted to cigarettes containing nicotine [see Product Liability Law Daily’s November 9, 2018 analysis]; and the third jury reaching the same conclusion as the second jury. A new trial had been granted after the judge in the second case determined that the verdict went against the weight of the evidence.

At the onset of the third trial, the parties were asked specifically about whether "addiction" should be defined for the jury. Both parties adamantly rejected this suggestion, leaving the question of addiction a disputed fact question for the jury to decide based on the conflicting testimony of expert witnesses.

Motion for new trial. The decedent’s representative argued that a new trial was warranted considering the overwhelming evidence put forth by her expert witness and the unconvincing evidence presented by the defense expert on the question of addiction. The cigarette manufacturers countered that argument by asserting that in the absence of a specific legal definition of "addiction" for the jury to apply, the verdict should stand. Upon review of the evidence, the court found the manufacturers’ argument persuasive.

Having been presented with two separate definitions of "addiction" by experts representing both sides, it was up to the jury to make a factual determination regarding the meaning of "addiction" and whether the decedent was addicted to the nicotine in cigarettes. After having considered the competing expert and fact testimony, the jury determined that the decedent had not been addicted to the nicotine in cigarette. While the plaintiff’s expert provided testimony upon which the jury could conclude that the decedent was addicted to the nicotine in cigarettes, the evidence did not establish that a contrary conclusion was against the clear weight of the evidence. Consequently, the court reasoned that this was not an "exceptional case" requiring the jury verdict to be set aside, especially in light of the fact that two separate juries reached identical verdicts, independently of each other, and on different proof. Thus, the plaintiff’s motion for a new trial was denied.

The case is No. 3:09-cv-13250-WGY-HTS.

Attorneys: Andrew R. Kaufman (Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP) for Eddie O. Starbuck. Alexandra Bach Lagos (Shook, Hardy & Bacon, LLP) and Dana G. Bradford, II (Smith, Gambrell & Russell, LLP) for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Philip Morris USA, Inc. Aviva L. Wernick (Hughes, Hubbard & Reed, LLP) and John Andrew DeVault, III (Bedell, Dittmar, DeVault, Pillans & Coxe, PA) for Lorillard Tobacco Co.

Companies: R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.; Philip Morris USA, Inc.; Lorillard Tobacco Co.

MainStory: TopStory JuryVerdictsNewsStory EvidentiaryNews TobaccoProductsNews FloridaNews

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