Florida Supreme Court Permits Widow to Seek Punitive Damages in Smoking Death Lawsuit

On March 17, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the widow of a smoker who died of lung cancer could seek punitive damages against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. on strict liability and negligence claims.

The Florida high court overturned a First District Court of Appeal decision denying the plaintiff bid for punitive damages, Law360 reports. The court rules that the trial court’s denial of the motion to amend the class action complaint in the original Engle v. Liggett Group case was “not based on the merits of the request but instead rested on the procedural posture at the time.” Though the Florida Supreme Court decertified the original Engle class and overturned a $145 billion verdict, the court allowed up to 700,000 individuals who could have won judgments to rely on the jury’s findings to file suits of their own. These individuals are known as Engle progeny plaintiffs.

Each individual plaintiff must prove entitlement to punitive damages in his or her individual lawsuit. The court also ruled that the demand for punitive damages depends on an underlying claim and is not a separate cause of action, so a plaintiff can ask for punitive damages on any properly pled claim that is not time-barred.

The plaintiff in the current case was awarded $2 million in compensatory damages for the 1992 death of her husband from smoking-induced lung cancer. In October 2012, the First District affirmed a ruling determining that Engle progeny plaintiffs cannot recover punitive damages on the strict liability and negligence claims because the lead plaintiffs in the Engle case had not asserted claims in timely fashion for punitive damages under those theories. The First District said that adding those punitive damages claims would unjustifiably broaden the scope and effect of Engle and change the nature of the litigation, according to Law360.

But one year later, the Second District ruled the opposite way, pointing out that the two punitive damages holdings in the Engle case did not creates a bar to individual plaintiffs seeking punitive damages for strict liability and negligence claims. With the appeals court split on the issue, the question returned to the Florida Supreme Court.

 

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