Update on Tobacco Lawsuits in Florida
The Florida Supreme Court recently declined to hear a lawsuit filed in 2008 against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company by a widow whose husband died from lung cancer in 1996. She argued that the company failed to disclose information that could have saved her husband’s life.
After a 2014 trial, the jury awarded her $16.9 million in compensation and $23.6 billion in punitive damages. But in 2015 the Escambia County court threw out the punitive damages award and ordered a new trial on that amount. R.J. Reynolds appealed, and the appeals court ruled that the company didn’t receive a fair trial and ordered a new trial on both punitive damages and compensation.
The widow appealed the appeals court’s decision to the Supreme Court, which decided not to hear the case. That means the decision ordering a new trial stands.
Tobacco Lawsuit Pending in Florida Supreme Court
Another Florida widow also sued R.J. Reynolds after her husband died from lung cancer. She claimed that her husband was addicted to cigarettes and that company knew how dangerous they were and sold them anyway. A jury awarded her millions of dollars in damages (but noted that her husband was 25 percent at fault).
An appellate court in West Palm Beach agreed with R.J. Reynolds that the damages award ($30 million in punitive damages) was excessive (but the court let stand a $7.875 million award for compensatory damages), and the widow appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, which agreed to review the case. The lawsuit is still pending.
(Compensatory damages are a monetary award designed to indemnify someone for a particular loss, like the wages that the widow lost when her husband died. Punitive damages are designed to punish the wrongdoer and typically exceed the compensatory amount.)
One unresolved issue is whether the widow’s claim lies in products liability (negligence) or the company’s intentional wrongdoing. That could make a difference in the damages amount.
Other Lawsuits Against R.J. Reynolds
These are not the first lawsuits filed against R.J. Reynolds in Florida. In fact, the Florida Supreme Court allowed thousands of negligence and liability claims to proceed against the tobacco company. R.J. Reynolds had argued that federal law preempts the state law claims, but the Florida court disagreed. This means that the various claims can work their way through the state court system.
(The federal laws at issue were the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act and the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act.)
This decision runs counter to an earlier ruling by a panel of judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which is a federal appellate court that has jurisdiction over federal district courts (trial courts) in Alabama, Georgia and Florida. The Eleventh Circuit ruling involved a similar lawsuit against R.J. Reynolds.
The Eleventh Circuit has agreed to reconsider the case en banc, which means that all of the judges who sit on the court (and not just the panel of three judges who originally decided the case) will determine whether or not federal law preempts the state law claims. Their decision has not yet been announced. The law is still in flux, which is why you need help from an experienced attorney if you have a negligence claim against a tobacco company.
If the Eleventh Circuit ultimately decides that the state law is preempted, that will directly contradict the Florida Supreme Court ruling, setting up a possible appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Contact Us Today
If you have a negligence claim against a tobacco company, contact a Fort Myers personal injury attorney at The Pendas Law Firm today for a free consultation. We will help you determine your best path forward.
The Pendas Law Firm also represents clients in the Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa, Miami, West Palm Beach, Daytona Beach and Bradenton areas.