US Supreme Court Rejects Big Tobacco Appeal
The U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 7 declined to hear big tobacco companies’ appeal of a Florida Supreme Court decision that makes it easier for smokers to sue the companies. As a result, a jury’s findings of fact in a massive class action suit from years ago can continue to be used in individual suits.
New Case, Old Findings
Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, and Liggett had asked the high court to hear their appeal of a $2.5-million jury award to the family of Charlotte Douglas, a 62-year-old lung cancer sufferer who died in 2008.
The Florida Supreme Court in 2006 upheld the decertification of Engle v. Liggett Group, a huge class action suit against the tobacco industry, but said the plaintiffs could proceed individually against the defendant companies, using the general findings of liability from the underlying year-long trial.
In the Engle trial, “the jury found that cigarettes containing nicotine are addictive, that smoking causes various deadly illnesses, and that the cigarette manufacturers were negligent and actually conspired to conceal the dangers of smoking from consumers,” explains litigator Theodore Leopold, of the Leopold Law Group in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
On appeal, “the class was decertified on the ground that each smoker’s claim would be too individualized to decide on a class basis,” he continues. “For instance, there were individualized issues regarding each smoker’s comparative fault, each smoker’s damages, and the availability of punitive damages with regard to each smoker.”
However, the Florida Supreme Court said that future individual lawsuits brought by the plaintiffs could use those original jury findings to generally establish the cigarette companies’ liability. The plaintiffs would only need new jury determinations if they had highly-individualized claims like emotional distress or fraud.
Individual Actions Proceed
“This opened the door for members of the now-decertified class to file individual actions against the tobacco manufacturers, but they got the benefit of the liability decisions the jury had made in the original Engle trial and were not required to retry those issues,” Leopold says.
And that’s what Douglas’ family did in her case. “In Douglas, under the Engle decision, the plaintiff did not have to prove the cigarette manufacturers made a harmful product that caused her lung cancer,” says Leopold.
But the cigarette companies challenged Douglas’ win, arguing that allowing a jury’s determinations from a different trial to stand in future trials was a denial of their constitutional right to due process.
The Florida Supreme Court rebuffed that argument, reaffirming its original holding in Engle, and the U.S. Supreme Court let that ruling stand. Douglas’ family gets to collect the $2.5 million.
Bad Odds for Big Tobacco
More than 4,500 class members, including Douglas, filed suits in Florida against the tobacco companies under that ruling, according to the companies’ petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Public Health Advisory Institute (PHAI) puts the number at 8,000.
With those kind of numbers, and the Douglas case as just an example, big tobacco was facing at least $11 trillion in possible jury verdicts. Of course, plaintiffs don’t win them all, but the industry was not happy.
“Twice now, the cigarette companies have failed to get these important procedural advantages overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court and it appears that, for all intents and purposes, the industry’s uphill legal battle has just become considerably steeper in Florida,” PHAI writes on its blog.
“Last November, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review an appeal of another Engle progeny case, Clay v. RJ Reynolds Tobacco, which raised similar Due Process issues,” notes PHAI.
While the Supreme Court’s refusal is a set-back for the tobacco industry, the defendants vowed to continue to fight. “Today’s decision does not diminish our ability to put forth a vigorous defense,” said a Philip Morris lawyer in a statement. “We have strong legal and factual defenses and remain committed to defending ourselves in each of these cases.”
They will have their hands full. “Other individual cases can proceed just like Douglas did with the Engle jury’s decisions on liability and causation being adopted in the case, precluding the tobacco defendants from relitigating those issues,” notes Leopold. Those plaintiffs will only need to prove their individual damages and, if they want punitive damages, the defendants’ liability for those.