Fla. SC won't review $28.3M tobacco decision

By John O'Brien | Jul 20, 2011

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Legal Newsline) - The Florida Supreme Court won't hear the appeal of tobacco company R.J. Reynolds of a $28.3 million verdict against it.

R.J. Reynolds argued it was wrong for the trial court to instruct the jury to find the company liable for the death of Benny Ray Martin if it decided Martin was a member of the so-called Engle class. That class had won a $145 billion punitive damages award, but it was overturned by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006.

However, members of the class were allowed to re-file their claims, which involved the addiction capabilities of cigarettes, individually. A one-page order filed Tuesday rejected R.J. Reynolds' petition for appeal and said no motion for rehearing will be entertained.

"Based on its reading of Engle, the trial court required the jury to find Reynolds liable if it concluded that Mr. Martin was an Engle class member - i.e., if it found that he had died from an addiction to cigarettes," attorneys for the company had written in an appeals brief.

"It thus allowed the Engle findings to substitute for the tortious-conduct elements of all of Mrs. (Mathilde) Martin's claims. For example, one such finding states that the Engle defendants sold defective cigarettes, but does not identify either the defect or the brands that contain it.

"Based on that finding, the court held that the Lucky Strike cigarettes smoked by Mr. Martin were defective. The court thus relieved Mrs. Martin of the traditional burden of proving that the specific Reynolds conduct that allegedly harmed Mr. Martin (selling Lucky Strike cigarettes) was tortious."

Martin's attorneys said the court properly interpreted the Engle decision, and that because Benny Ray Martin was found to be a class member he was entitled to use the decision's findings.

"RJR simply pleads for this Court to use this case as a vehicle to rehear and nullify Engle," attorneys wrote.

"Merely because RJR would like different precedent from this Court does not establish conflict jurisdiction. There is no conflict with cases decided to prior to Engle, because those cases involved separate causes of action, not the same cause of action; and did not involve a directive from this Court to give res judicata effect to common issue findings approved for class member claims."

A Bloomberg report says R.J. Reynolds will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at jobrienwv@gmail.com.

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