The Florida Supreme Court will review a punitive damages award of $16 million against R.J. Reynolds for allegedly causing a smoker’s death, agreeing with an intermediate appeals court that the issue of whether the award was out of line with compensatory damages is of “great public importance.”
The high court agreed to review the case after the Fifth District certified the question in January, setting up an appeal with implications for hundreds of similar claims against tobacco companies. The suit alleges that Reynolds knew its cigarettes were harmful and addictive but deliberately marketed them as reasonably safe, leading Lois Stucky to smoke from age 17 to her death of lung cancer at 52.
A jury awarded $16 million in punitive damages and $300,000 in compensatory damages, later reduced by the trial court to $150,000 based on Stucky’s portion of the fault. The Fifth District then decided in October the ratio was excessive, revising its opinion in January to certify whether the amount of punitive damages must depend on the amount of compensatory damages.
The Fifth District had ruled that, despite Reynolds’ “significant reprehensibility” and “history of disregard for the health of its smokers,” the punitive damages award was out of proportion.
The Florida Supreme Court decertified the landmark Engle v. Liggett class action suit against tobacco companies in 2006, but it allowed members to benefit from a legal assumption that cigarettes cause cancer as they pursued suits individually. Coates and Stucky’s three surviving children are not members of the Engle class, which includes only smokers and their surviving spouses.