Products Liability Law Daily Punitive damages nixed, but compensatory award reinstated in Engle wrongful death action
Thursday, December 13, 2018

Punitive damages nixed, but compensatory award reinstated in Engle wrongful death action

By Wendy Biddle, J.D.

The Florida fourth district court of appeals ruled that a trial court erred in declining to apply the post-1999 version of a statute barring successive awards of punitive damages in an Engle class member’s wrongful death claim against cigarette manufacturers, Philip Morris USA, Inc. and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., because the class member’s lung cancer developed in 2003, after the law’s effective date. The court also reversed and remanded for reinstatement of the entire amount of compensatory damages found by the jury after the trial court had reduced the compensatory award based on the decedent’s comparative fault (Philip Morris USA Inc. v. Martin, December 12, 2018, Artua, E.).

In 1995, the plaintiff’s wife suffered a smoking-related heart attack. She later developed lung cancer in 2003, and ultimately died of the cancer in 2004. The decedent’s husband brought this Engle wrongful death lawsuit, pursuant to Engle v. Liggett Group, Inc., 945 So. 2d 1246 (Fla. 2006), against Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds in 2007, asserting claims of strict liability, negligence, fraud by concealment, and conspiracy to commit fraud by concealment. The jury found in favor of the widower on each claim, determined that his wife was 32 percent at fault, found that she has suffered $5.4 million in compensatory damages, and assessed $450,000 in punitive damages against Philip Morris and $200,000 in punitive damages against R.J. Reynolds [see Products Liability Law Daily’s November 22, 2016 analysis]. The court entered final judgment for the widower for $3.7 million to account for the jury’s comparative fault determination.

Punitive damages. The tobacco companies appealed, arguing that the court erred by refusing to apply the post-1999 version of Florida Statute 768.73(2)(a) which bars successive punitive damages against a defendant from the same act or single course of conduct. The court noted that all Engle wrongful death actions do not necessarily arise before the 1999 amendment just because they relate back to the 1994 Engleclass action complaint. The court analyzed the facts and determined that the current cause of action arose after October 1, 1999. Even though the decedent suffered a smoking-related heart attack in 1995, the cause of her death was lung cancer which developed in 2003. When a smoker suffers from more than one smoking-related disease, the cause of action for each distinct disease accrues separately, meaning that the lung cancer disease cause of action accrued in 2003, after the 1999 amendment. The court held that the decedent had no vested right to bring a claim for punitive damages under the pre-1999 statute for harm caused by her lung cancer that began in 2003. Therefore, the court determined that the trial court erred in not applying the post-1999 version of the statute, which bars awarding punitive damages to the plaintiff because the tobacco companies had established at trial that punitive damages had previously been awarded in other actions arising from the same conduct.

Cross-appeal on compensatory damages. The widower cross-appealed the trial court’s reduction of the compensatory damages based on the jury’s comparative fault determination on the intentional tort claims. The court noted that the trial court was following the law in the district at the time, which subsequently has been overturned by the Florida Supreme Court in Schoeff v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 232 So. 3d 294 (Fla. 2017) [see Products Liability Law Daily’s December 15, 2017 analysis]. Thus, the appellate court reversed and remanded with instructions for the trial court to reinstate the entire amount of the jury’s verdict on compensatory damages.

The appellate court was not persuaded by the dissent’s argument that a new jury trial should be held to determine damages. Because the jury was instructed separately to award the full amount of compensatory damages proximately caused by the defendants and also instructed separately to determine the percentage of comparative negligence, there was no evidence of wrongdoing. The trial court reduced the amount based on the comparative fault, and there was no evidence that the jury did not follow the trial court’s instructions. The dissent argued that there was a possibility that the damages verdict would have been reduced if the jury knew the tobacco companies would bear the full amount of the compensatory damages award.

The case is No. 4D17-574.

Attorneys: Scott A. Shesin (Mayer Brown LLP) for Philip Morris USA Inc.; William L. Durham (King & Spalding LLP) for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.; Richard B. Rosenthal (Richard B. Rosenthal, P.A.) for Stanley Martin.

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

MainStory: TopStory DamagesNews TobaccoProductsNews FloridaNews

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