A $148 million punitive damages award for the husband of a smoker who died of lung disease will likely be wiped out by a recent Florida Supreme Court decision, but a $9.2 million compensatory damages award appeared to also be on the chopping block because the smoker was not married to his partner when he first got sick.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal judges indicated that the state Supreme Court’s November decision in Sheffield v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. , which applied a 1999 law limiting punitive damages to Engle progeny cases, would probably zero out the $148 million award to Bryan Rintoul.
But the judges also expressed concern about the compensatory damages awarded under the wrongful death statute because Rintoul and his husband Edward Caprio were not married in 1996 when Caprio was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder.
The Fourth District ruled in 2017 in Kelly v. Georgia-Pacific LLC that a surviving spouse cannot claim loss of consortium damages under the state’s wrongful death law if the two were not married at the time of the deceased spouse’s injury.
Rintoul attorney Daniel Nordby of Shutts & Bowen LLP pointed out that his client and Caprio were legally barred from getting married when Caprio first got sick, though they at that point had already been living together and functioning as a married couple for years. They married in January 2015, less than one week after same-sex marriage became legal in Florida.
Caprio, who filed his suit against R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris USA Inc. in 2007, died in January 2018.
Caprio 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 class members to file individual suits and rely on the jury’s findings, which include conclusions that smoking causes certain disease and that tobacco companies hid the dangers of smoking.
Caprio filed his suit against R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris USA Inc. in 2007 and won a partial verdict in 2005 but waived appeal to take another shot at the tobacco companies. He died before he got the chance.
A Fort Lauderdale jury in November 2019 awarded one of the largest Engle progeny judgments in recent years and one of the first for a gay couple. The jurors ordered Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds to each pay $74 million in punitive damages, as well as $9.2 million in compensatory damages.
But thanks to the Sheffield decision, the punitive damages award is likely to be reduced to zero. In Sheffield, the state high court said a wrongful death action arises upon a smoker’s death and not at the time of diagnosis.
That means for many Engle progeny plaintiffs like Caprio, a 1999 law that 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.