Smoker’s Widow Asks Fla. High Court To Revive $5M Award

A smoker’s widow asked the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday to reinstate a $5 million punitive damages award against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., arguing that a law limiting punitive damages does not apply because the cause of action predates the 1999 law.

David Sales, who represents widow Mary Sheffield, told the justices in oral argument that the Fifth District Court of Appeal got it wrong when it determined that Sheffield’s wrongful death action arose upon her husband’s death in 2007 and not at the time he was first injured from smoking.

Sheffield’s husband, Valton, who was a member of the decertified landmark Engle v. Liggett class action suit against tobacco companies, had valid personal injury causes of action that predated the 1999 law, according to Sales.

But Noel Francisco, arguing on behalf of R.J. Reynolds, said that in the 1999 law, which applies “to all causes of action arising after the effective date,” the word “arise” applies to the cause of action, not to the tortious conduct at issue. The law bars punitive damages for conduct on which punitive damages have already been imposed against a defendant in any action alleging harm from the same conduct.

In a 2-1 ruling in February 2019, the Fifth District upheld a $1.8 million compensatory damages award for Sheffield but remanded the punitive damages portion of the jury’s verdict for further proceedings in the trial court, including a possible new trial on that issue.

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