The Florida Supreme Court has refused to hear an appeal by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. of a $28.3 million award issued in 2006 to the widow of a 56-year-old Panhandle smoker who died of lung cancer.
The decision could have significant ramifications for as many as 8,000 individual lawsuits – some nearing 40 years old – filed against tobacco companies in Florida because, without comment, the court essentially dismissed Reynolds' contention that lower courts failed to adequately require Benny Martin’s widow to prove its liability in his 1995 death.
R.J. Reynolds immediately issued a statement after the state’s Supreme Court denied it appeal in R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Martin, vowing to take its case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We remain confident that the Martin decision directly violates Reynolds’ constitutional rights by depriving us of our due process right to a fair and impartial trial,’’ Reynolds’ spokesman David Howard said.
According to court documents, Benny Martin was a longtime smoker of Lucky Strike cigarettes, which were made by R.J. Reynolds.
In 2006, an Escambia County jury awarded $5 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages to his widow, Mathilde Martin. The $5 million in compensatory damages was later reduced to $3.3 million because the court determined Martin was partly responsible for his death.
The lawsuit was the first of the so-called “Engle progeny” cases to reach a district court of appeal following the Florida Supreme Court's decision in Engle v. Liggett Group, Inc.
Engle v. Liggett Group, Inc. began as a smokers' class action lawsuit filed in 1994 against cigarette companies and tobacco industry organizations seeking damages for smoking-related illnesses and deaths.
The plaintiff class in the suit included all Florida “citizens and residents, and their survivors, who have suffered, presently suffer or who have died from diseases and medical conditions caused by their addiction to cigarettes that contain nicotine.’
In 2000, a Miami-Dade County jury ruled in favor of the class-action lawsuit, issuing a $144.8 billion liability verdict against tobacco companies – the largest punitive damage claim in history – on behalf of 700,000 state smokers.
The state’s Third District Court of Appeals threw the $144.8 billion liability verdict out, ruling a class-action lawsuit was not the “proper vehicle” for such an action.
The Florida Supreme Court in 2006 upheld the lower court’s decision, but said “Engle” litigants could pursue individual lawsuits against tobacco companies for compensatory damages in individual “progeny” suits.
The court ruled that in Engle verdicts, the jury would assign a percentage of the blame for the plaintiff's disease on the plaintiff, reducing the overall compensatory damages award.
Significantly, however, the state’s high court also upheld a number of findings from the Miami-Dade jury ruling in the class-action suit, including that tobacco companies were negligent, conspired to hide information about the dangers of smoking, and sold defective products.
Altria Group, Inc., the maker of Marlboro cigarettes, R.J. Reynolds American, Inc., whose brands include Winston, and Lorillard, Inc., have since settled more than 400 individual Engle claims, paying more than $100 million in compensatory damages.
But as many as 8,000 Engle lawsuits remain in the litigative pipeline – some nearing 40 years old.
As of 2017, there had been 225 Engle lawsuits that had gone to trial with 144 resulting in judgments for plaintiffs. Tobacco companies had paid about 56 judgments from these trials for a total of $380 million, according to the state.
In its appeal of the $28.3 million award issued in Escambia County to Martin’s widow – as well as in the pending cases – Reynolds challenged the way lower courts applied the 2006 decision, arguing Martin’s attorneys never had to prove he “relied on deceptive advertising about the dangers of smoking” and was unaware of its dangers.
The state’s First District Court of Appeal upheld the verdict in December. In March, Reynolds filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to hear its Martin appeal, noting the same arguments it was making in this case also applied to other “Engle progeny” suits.
“Thousands of Engle progeny cases are presently pending in state and federal courts throughout Florida,’’ the company said in the brief. “In all of these cases, courts must address the threshold questions presented here – how the Engle findings apply in an individual suit; what a plaintiff must show to use them; and how a plaintiff may prove reliance.’’
Mathilde Martin’s attorneys argued Reynolds’ appeal was seeking to “reboot” more than a decade of legal rulings and reprove issues already determined by the 2006 Supreme Court findings.
“Today, the Florida Supreme Court said, ‘No, we’re done hearing this,’‘’ said Matt Schultz, one of Mathilde Martin’s attorneys, after Thursday’s ruling.