The Florida Supreme Court ruled that thousands of plaintiffs relying on findings from the state’s seminal Engle tobacco case must prove they relied on a statement by a tobacco company concealing or omitting material information on cigarettes’ dangerous health effects in order to prevail on fraudulent concealment and conspiracy claims.
The justices voted 6-1 to affirm a First District ruling that overturned a $2.6 million verdict for a smoker’s widow, Linda Prentice, based on a finding that the trial court erred by denying defendant R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.’s request that it instruct jurors that they had to determine if Prentice’s late husband, John C. Price, had relied on such a statement from the company.
While the high court sided with R.J. Reynolds, it declined to consider the company’s bid to use the Prentice case as a springboard for reconsideration of the court’s 2006 decision. That ruling decertified the Engle class and overturned a $145 billion verdict, but said that the more than 700,000 former members of the Engle class could rely in individual suits on certain findings of the Engle jury, including that smoking causes certain diseases and that tobacco companies hid the dangers of smoking.
In the lone dissent, Justice Jorge Labarga suggested the majority opinion has made it “virtually impossible” for Engle progeny plaintiffs to succeed on fraudulent concealment claims and had sided with an outlier decision from the First District, which stood in contrast to “sound decisions” from the Second, Third and Fourth Districts.
But the majority opinion, penned by Justice Carlos G. Muñiz, said it disagreed that its ruling addressed how a plaintiff can prove reliance. Instead, it asserted that the “reasoning underlying our holding is straightforward.”
The original Engle plaintiffs’ “fraud by concealment” claim was based on arguments that the tobacco companies chose to speak, but then violated a resulting duty to provide full and honest disclosure, the majority said.
The majority included three clarifying points on its findings:
It said that concealment conspiracy — the actual claim for which the Prentice jury found Reynolds to be liable — and fraudulent concealment are basically interchangeable in regard to the reliance issue.
Its finding is not that an Engle progeny plaintiff needs to prove reliance on a statement that was affirmatively false.
And lastly, they agree that reliance on a statement” does not necessarily mean reliance on a specific statement, such as a specific advertisement, but could refer to “a category of statements addressing a particular topic,” such as ads for filtered cigarettes.