By Kathleen Bianco, J.D.
A Florida jury awarded $4 million to the widow of a Florida resident who died from laryngeal cancer allegedly caused by his years of smoking cigarettes after affirmatively finding that the nicotine-containing cigarettes manufactured by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. were the legal cause of her deceased husband’s cancer and death. (In Re: Engle Progeny Cases Tobacco Litigation (Bertie Thomas, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Marvin Thomas), July 28, 2017).
The widow, as the estate representative, filed suit on behalf of her deceased husband’s estate seeking damages for his smoking-related injuries, which she alleged were caused by his addiction to cigarettes containing nicotine, particularly cigarettes manufactured by R.J. Reynolds. According to the complaint, the deceased smoker was an Engle class member—pursuant to Engle v. Liggett Group., Inc., 945 So. 2d 1246 (Fla. 2006), which established the common liability of tobacco company defendants and gave certain Engle jury findings res judicata effect in individual cases following the decertification of the Engle class—who suffered from laryngeal cancer as a proximate result of smoking cigarettes manufactured and sold by the defendant. The widow asserted claims for strict liability, negligence, fraud by concealment, conspiracy to commit fraud by concealment, breach of express and implied warranties, and punitive damages.
Jury findings. The jury was asked whether the deceased smoker had been addicted to cigarettes containing nicotine and, if so, whether his addiction was a legal cause of his laryngeal cancer. The jury answered in the affirmative, confirming the decedent’s Engle status. Next, the jury was asked whether the deceased smoker reasonably relied to his detriment on concealments or omissions of material information not otherwise known or available concerning the health effects or addictive nature of smoking cigarettes made by the manufacturer; and, if that were the case, was that reliance a legal cause of the deceased smoker's smoking-related disease and subsequent death. The jury answered yes. It also answered yes to the question of whether the deceased smoker reasonably relied to his detriment on any act or omission taken by the cigarette manufacturer in furtherance of an agreement with other tobacco companies or organizations to conceal or omit material information not otherwise known or available concerning the health effects or addictive nature of smoking cigarettes; and, if so, was his reliance a legal cause of his smoking-related death. The jury then assigned percentages of fault for the legal cause of the decedent’s smoking-related death, finding R.J. Reynolds 55 percent at fault and the decedent 45 percent at fault.
Damages. The jury awarded $4 million in compensatory damages to the widow. Furthermore, the jury was asked whether it found under the circumstances of the case, by clear and convincing evidence, that punitive damages were warranted against R.J. Reynolds for any conduct that was a legal cause of the decedent’s death. The jury did not find this to be the case; thus, no punitive damages were assessed.
The case is No. 08-80000 (07-CV-036432 (19)).
Attorneys: Eric Rosen (Kelley/Uustal) for Bertie Thomas. Ray W. Persons (King & Spalding, LLC) for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
Companies: R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
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