11th Circuit Says Plaintiffs Can Use Engle Findings to Prove Liability
A recent court ruling lends support to plaintiffs suing the tobacco industry for personal injuries. On Thursday, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that plaintiffs can rely on findings from the landmark Engle tobacco class action lawsuit to establish strict liability and negligence. Engle progeny litigation refers to lawsuits stemming from a massive class action lawsuit filed in 1994 against R.J Reynolds Tobacco Co.
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The Engle class action lawsuit was initially filed by Howard Engle, a pediatrician from Miami Beach who sued R.J Reynolds from injuries due to smoking. The suit, which ultimately represented about 700,000 Floridian plaintiffs, alleged that the tobacco company hid information about the addictive nature of nicotine and altered levels of the drug. The litigation played out over several years and was broken up in several phases. The first phase produced a verdict for the plaintiff class, finding that smoking caused 19 diseases. Jurors found that nicotine is addictive, that cigarettes were defective and dangerous, and that defendants concealed and misrepresented the risks. The jury also found the defendants to be negligence and found that punitive damages were warranted. The plaintiffs sought $200 million in damages.
Judge Robert Kaye was tasked with the massive litigation.
Phase II began in 1999 and ended in July 2000, with jurors issuing verdicts in favor of the plaintiffs (the case was limited to a sample of three of the representative class members). Several weeks later, jurors awarded massive punitive damages of $145 billion.
The Tobacco Control Legal Consortium says of the award, “The unprecedented size of the verdict raised the specter of bankruptcy for the defendants. Were it not for the quick action of the Florida Legislature, which placed a cap on the appeal-bonding requirement of the lesser of $100 million or 10% of net worth per defendant, the tobacco industry would have had to raise approximately $164 billion in order to appeal the verdict. Some feared that raising such vast sums would endanger Master Settlement Agreement payments the tobacco defendants already owed to the States for their expenditure of Medicaid funds to cover the costs of citizens’ smoking-related illnesses.”
Ultimately, however, the Florida Supreme court reversed the judgment and decertified the class. However, former class members were allowed to pursue litigation on their own, producing Engle progeny cases.
According to Law360, a court found that a tobacco plaintiff could not rely on the jury’s conclusion in the Engle case to prove liability. However, the 11th Circuit appeals court reversed the decision. In arguing against the lawsuit, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Philip Morris International Inc. claimed that federal law barred plaintiffs from using Engle findings because the government does not ban the sale of cigarettes. However, the appeals court disagreed.
Judge William Pryor stated that nothing in federal laws “reflects a federal objective to permit the sale or manufacture of cigarettes” and that Florida is well within its rights to regulate cigarette sales and impose tort liability on tobacco companies.
“R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris would have us presume that Congress established a right to sell cigarettes based on a handful of federal labeling requirements,” the court said, according to Law360. “We decline to do so.”
The tobacco companies also argued that their due process rights would be violated if plaintiffs relied on Engle jury’s findings. The 11th Circuit also rejected this argument, stating that the jury decided common elements of the negligence and strict liability claims against the defendants. The judges say the companies had notice and opportunity to be heard throughout the trial, which took place over a long period of time.
“We recognize that the Engle court defined a novel notion of res judicata, but we cannot say that the substance of that doctrine or its application in these trials was so unfair as to violate the constitutional guarantee of due process,” the court stated.
In this particular case, Law360 reports, jurors returned a verdict of $2.75 million in favor of the plaintiff against R.J. Reynolds. Later on, this was reduced to $500,000. Philip Morris was hit with a $275,000. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a man whose wife died of smoking. The award was reduced because the plaintiff’s wife was found to be 70 percent at fault.
In Tobacco Case, RJ Reynolds Hit with $29M Verdict
Parker Waichman notes that other Engle progeny cases have produced sizeable verdicts. Last year, R.J. Reynolds was hit with a $29 million verdict. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a plaintiff whose wife died from injuries related to chain smoking.
Jurors awarded $20 million in punitive damages and $8.8 million in compensatory damages. The large verdict was much greater than the $10 million initially sought by the plaintiff. Punitive damages are awarded as an extra form of punishment when jurors feel the liable party’s actions warrant it.
According to Law 360, the widower had asked for $5 million for pain and suffering and $300,000 to cover medical expenses; the jury awarded $8.8 million. He asked for $14 million in punitive damages and was awarded $20 million. The plaintiff was married to his wife for 29 years before she died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
In closing arguments, jurors heard that he and his wife went on many adventures together and had a deep, loving relationship. Attorneys for the plaintiff said the couple grew old together and deserved more time with one another.
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