The Florida Supreme Court dealt a blow to Engle progeny plaintiffs when it refused to reinstate a $5 million punitive damages award against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. because the smoker had died in 2007, after a 1999 law limiting punitive damages.
In a 6-1 decision, the state high court affirmed a ruling by the Fifth District Court of Appeal that determined Mary Sheffield’s wrongful death action arose upon her husband’s death in 2007 and not at the time he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1994.
The Supreme Court said the statute is “abundantly clear in its scope” and applies to all causes of action that arise after the law went into effect in October 1999.
Sheffield’s husband, Valton, was a member of the landmark Engle v. Liggett class action suit against tobacco companies that resulted in a $145 billion verdict. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court decertified the class and overturned the verdict but allowed up to 700,000 class members to file individual suits and rely on the jury’s findings, which include conclusions that smoking causes certain diseases and that tobacco companies hid the dangers of smoking.
The 1999 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. R.J. Reynolds said it has already paid more than $500 million in punitive damages in Engle progeny cases, a sum the Florida Legislature decided was enough to pay for the company’s concealing the dangers of smoking from the public.
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.
The Fifth District concluded that the trial court had erred by applying the punitive damages statute in place in 1996, when the Engle class was recertified, instead of the current version, enacted Oct. 1. 1999, based on its finding that the cause of action for the estate’s wrongful death claim accrued when Valton Sheffield died in 2007.
The decision ran counter to the conclusions that the First, Second and Fourth districts had reached on this issue with regard to Engle progeny suits.
The dissenting judge in the Fifth District, Judge Brian D. Lambert, pointed out that Valton Sheffield could have filed his own suit against R.J. Reynolds before the 1999 amendment to the punitive damages law. Had he done that and then died after 1999 due to his illness, the right to seek punitive damages under the pre-1999 law would have carried over to a wrongful death suit brought by his estate.
Instead, Sheffield deferred filing his own suit and pursued his claims as a member of the Engle class litigation, which effectively ran until the Florida high court decertified the Engle class in 2006.