R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Philip Morris USA Inc. urged a Florida appeals court Tuesday to reverse a $10 million judgment for the daughter of a smoker who died of lung cancer, arguing that her attorney made improper inflammatory remarks to the jury at the close of trial.
R.J. Reynolds’ attorney Val Leppert told a Fourth District Court of Appeal panel that Deborah Neff’s attorney Scott Schlesinger made a number of remarks in his closing argument meant to inflame the jury, such as calling the tobacco companies immoral evildoers and their defense “the last refuge of the scoundrel.”
Schlesinger quoted George Orwell’s “1984” and Martin Luther King Jr., equating the tobacco companies with “Big Brother,” the leader of a totalitarian state depicted in “1984,” and King’s racist opponents.
He noted that Schlesinger had already been warned by the Fourth District in another tobacco suit about improper remarks to the jury, in which Schlesinger compared the companies to Nazis and read from “1984”.
But Schlesinger said his comments hardly inflamed the jurors, who awarded only about 55% of the compensatory damages he had requested and 30% of the punitive damages.
The case is one of thousands stemming from the landmark Engle v. Liggett class action suit that led to a $145 billion verdict against tobacco companies. The Florida Supreme Court overturned the verdict and decertified the class in 2006 but allowed up to 700,000 members of the class to rely on the jury’s findings to file suits of their own.
Neff filed suit on behalf of her mother, Dorothy Milinkovich, who died of lung cancer in 1994 at 71. She began smoking at 13 and smoked continuously, sometimes up to five or six packs per day, until her death.
In April 2019, a jury in Broward County awarded Neff $4 million in compensatory damages and $6 million in punitive damages.