A Florida jury has awarded the family of a deceased cigarette smoker $2 million in punitive damages from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., bringing an end to a yearslong Engle progeny case.
The jury reached its verdict on October 19th, finding that the evidence warrants the $2 million in punitive damages against the tobacco company to be awarded to the family of Jose Ledo, following a prior trial that had awarded compensatory damages to the family.
In 2016, the jury had found that Jose Ledo was addicted to cigarettes and that R.J. Reynolds’ cigarettes were defective, and awarded $2 million in compensatory damages to Ledo’s wife, Mirtha, and $4 million to his son, Carlos, over the smoker’s death of laryngeal cancer at age 58 in 1996. The total was reduced to $2.94 million, as the jury had found R.J. Reynolds 49% at fault for Jose Ledo’s death.
The jury at the time did not award punitive damages, because the judge had granted R.J. Reynolds a directed verdict on punitive damages. In 2019, an appeals court found that the directed verdict was in error and remanded for another look at punitive damages.
The jury in the punitive damages trial was bound by the first’s findings as to liability.
The punitive damages trial, however, was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but two weeks ago it began, with counsel for the Ledo family saying that while the company’s leadership may have changed, its “legacy” of hiding the dangers of tobacco should be punished.
The Ledo family’s attorney told the jury it should award punitive damages to punish past conduct and to deter future similar conduct by the $24.9 billion company, while R.J. Reynolds’s counsel said its products were not responsible for Ledo’s death.
The case is one of the thousands stemming from the landmark Engle class action against tobacco companies.
The Florida Supreme Court had decertified the Engle class in 2006 and overturned a $145 billion verdict, but allowed up to 700,000 people who could have won judgments to rely on the jury’s findings to file suits of their own. Those findings include conclusions that smoking causes certain diseases and that tobacco companies hid the dangers of smoking.