A Florida appeals court reversed a $10 million judgment won by the daughter of a smoker who died of lung cancer in a case against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., finding that her attorney had been warned in four previous instances not to make inflammatory arguments at trial.
A Fourth District Court of Appeal panel said objections levied by the tobacco giant should have been sustained when Deborah Neff’s attorney Scott Schlesinger told the jury that R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris USA Inc. ran “an enterprise of death” and that their defense was “the last refuge of the scoundrel.”
The court also should not have allowed him to equate the tobacco companies with “Big Brother,” the leader of a totalitarian state depicted in George Orwell’s “1984,” and with Martin Luther King Jr.’s racist opponents.
Schlesinger had already been warned by the Fourth District in another tobacco suit about improper remarks to the jury. In that case, R.J. Reynolds v. Kaplan , the appeals court affirmed a nearly $3 million punitive damages award but said Schlesinger’s oblique comparisons of tobacco companies to Nazis crossed the line. The court also admonished him for reading a passage from “1984.”
The case is one of thousands stemming from the landmark Engle v. Liggett class action 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. Milinkovich 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.