WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - (Mealey's) A Florida jury on Aug. 19 handed a smoker's widow $270,000 in punitive damages, two weeks after awarding her a net $2.2 million compensatory award; the amount of punitive damages is far less even than that suggested by the tobacco company defendants (Margaret E. Piendle v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., No. 2008-CA-038777, Fla. Cir., 15th Jud. Cir., Palm Beach Co.).
Charles Piendle began smoking Lucky Strike brand cigarettes in the late 1950s and continued smoking for about 30 years before finally quitting in 1989; he died from small-cell lung cancer seven years later. His widow, Margaret Piendle, sued R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. (RJR), Philip Morris USA Inc. and other cigarette manufacturers in the 15th Judicial Circuit Court for Palm Beach County as a former member of the class in Engle v. Liggett Group, Inc. (945 So.2d 1246 [Fla. Sup. 2006], cert denied, 128 S.Ct. 96 ) that was broken up by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006.
Piendle's strict liability, fraud by concealment, conspiracy to commit fraud by concealment and negligence claims against all but RJR and Philip Morris were resolved before trial, which proceeded against the two companies. RJR and Philip Morris argued that the decedent was not addicted to cigarettes and could have quit at any time.
Phase I of the trial before Judge Robin Rosenberg concluded Aug. 6 with the six-member jury awarding Piendle $4 million in compensatory damages. The jury found that the decedent's addiction to cigarettes was the legal cause of his death but apportioned 45 percent of the fault to the decedent and 27.5 percent each to RJR and Philip Morris; because of the apportionment of fault, the damages awarded to Piendle will be reduced to approximately $2.2 million.
The trial proceeded to the punitive damages phase on Aug. 16 before the same jury. After three days of testimony and closing arguments, the jury deliberated for about a full day before returning a verdict of just $270,000 - $180,000 against RJR and $90,000 against Philip Morris.
Not only is the amount several orders of magnitude below the damages asked for by Piendle, who had floated numbers in the neighborhood of $60 million, but it is also far less than the $900,000 suggested by the defendants as an alternative to no award at all.
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