$30 Million Verdict In Engle Progeny Suit Survives Florida Appeal

$30 Million Verdict In Engle Progeny Suit Survives Florida Appeal

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - (Mealey's) A $30 million verdict to the widow of a longtime smoker of Lucky Strikes, the largest post-Engle verdict when it was announced, was affirmed Dec. 14 in a Florida appeals court (R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company v. Matilde C. Martin, No. 1D09-4934, Fla. App., 1st Dist.).

The First District Court of Appeal panel went further than the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals' ruling in Brown v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. (611 F.3d 1324, 1335 [11th Cir. 2010]; 576 F. Supp. 2d 1328, 1347-48 [M.D. Fla. 2008]) that the Florida Supreme Court's res judicata ruling in Engle v. Liggett Group, Inc. (945 So. 2d 1246 [Fla. 2006]) meant issue preclusion rather than claim preclusion. 

"As does the Eleventh Circuit, we interpret the supreme court's ruling in Engle to mean individual class plaintiffs, when pursuing RJR and the other class defendants for damages, can rely on the Phase I jury's factual findings," the panel said.  "But unlike the Eleventh Circuit, we conclude the Phase I findings establish the conduct elements of the asserted claims, and individual Engle plaintiffs need not independently prove up those elements or demonstrate the relevance of the findings to their lawsuits, assuming they assert the same claims raised in the class action."

"The common issues, which the jury decided in favor of the class, were the 'conduct' elements of the claims asserted by the class, and not simply, as characterized by the Eleventh Circuit, a collection of facts relevant to those elements," the panel said.  It also found that the award of $25 million in punitive damages was not excessive.

Judge Simone Marstiller wrote the opinion for the court.  Judges Nikki Ann Clark and T. Kent Wetherell II concurred.

The case was tried before Judge Terry D. Terrell of the Escambia County Circuit Court.  Benny Martin died from lung cancer in 1995 after smoking cigarettes for more than 50 years.  His widow, Matilde C. Martin, sued R.J. Reynolds and five other cigarette manufacturers, arguing that the tobacco companies conspired to make their products more addictive to customers and withheld information from the public about the dangers of smoking.

[Editor's Note:  Full coverage will be in the December issue of Mealey's Litigation Report: Tobacco.  In the meantime, the opinion is available at www.mealeysonline.com or by calling the Customer Support Department at 1-800-833-9844.  Document #04-101215-011Z.  For all of your legal news needs, please visit www.lexisnexis.com/mealeys.]

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For more information, call editor Michael Lefkowitz at 215-988-7732, or e-mail him at michael.lefkowitz@lexisnexis.com.