A Florida appeals court reversed $3.25 million in punitive damages against R. J. Reynolds in an Engle-progeny case, applying a state’s high court decision in another Engle case on how to apply punitive damages in cases over deaths after 1999.
The Florida Supreme Court in November held in another Engle-progeny case that because a smoker died in 2007, after a 1999 law limiting punitive damages, that a punitive damages award should be reversed. In that case, the high court said that the statute applies to all causes of action arising after the law went into effect in 1999 and that a wrongful death cannot be a cause of action until a death, regardless of when the fatal disease was first diagnosed.
In the instant case, Dorothy Durrance died in 2000 of chronic pulmonary disease, which manifested before the 1999 law took effect. The suit was brought by her children, Janice Jones and former Florida Circuit Judge Julian Dale Durrance.
While the Second District court of appeal in March 2021 initially affirmed the punitive damages award, the question of whether the 1999 law would apply to the award was certified to the Sunshine State’s high court.
That question was decided in Sheffield v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., in which the Florida Supreme Court ruled that 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 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 concealment of the dangers of smoking from the public.
Durrance’s suit, and the Sheffield case, were among the many suits spun off from the landmark Engle v. Liggett Group case, in which the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 upheld an appeals court decision overturning a $145 billion verdict but allowed class members to sue tobacco companies individually using the Engle jury’s liability findings about the industry and its role in downplaying the dangers of smoking.