By Kathleen Bianco, J.D.
A Florida jury awarded $41.8 million to the widower of a Florida resident who died from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)/emphysema allegedly caused by her years of smoking cigarettes after affirmatively finding that the nicotine-containing cigarettes manufactured by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. were the legal cause of the decedent’s illness and death. (In Re: Engle Progeny Cases Tobacco Litigation (Schlefstein v. R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.), February 2, 2018 (Verdict, Phase I) and February 5, 2018 (Verdict, Phase II), Rodriguez-Powell, M.).
The widower, as the estate representative, filed suit on behalf of his deceased wife’s estate seeking damages for her smoking-related injuries, which he alleged were caused by her 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 Englejury findings res judicata effect in individual cases following the decertification of the Engle class—who suffered from COPD/emphysema as a proximate result of smoking cigarettes manufactured and sold by the defendant. The widower asserted claims for strict liability, negligence, fraud by concealment, conspiracy to commit fraud by concealment, and punitive damages.
Jury findings. The jury was asked whether the deceased smoker had been addicted to cigarettes containing nicotine and, if so, whether her addiction was a legal cause of her COPD/enphysema. The jury answered in the affirmative. Next, the jury was asked whether the deceased smoker reasonably relied to her 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 her 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 her reliance a legal cause of her smoking-related death.
Damages. Following a trial, the jury awarded nearly $14 million ($13,965,000) in compensatory damages to the widower. 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 again answered in the affirmative and awarded punitive damages in the amount of $27,799,999.99 million.
Attorneys: Alex Alvarez (Alvarez Law Firm) for Dawn Schlefstein. Kathryn Lehman (King & Spalding, LLP) for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
Companies: R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
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