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Florida Supreme Court says appeals court erred when it reversed $4.5 million award over smoking-related death

Lawsuits

By Charmaine Little | Oct 2, 2018


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Legal Newsline) – The Supreme Court of Florida rejected the state's 4th District Court of Appeal’s decision to reverse a multimillion-dollar award for a woman whose mother died of lung cancer.

In her lawsuit against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., a district court awarded the damages after a jury determined Gwendolyn E. Odom’s mother passed away because of her cigarette addiction. The appeals court overturned it as well as the trial court’s denial of a motion for remittitur (request to lower the damages a jury has granted). 

The appeals court also put a limit on the amount of noneconomic damages a financially independent adult surviving child could legally receive as a result of a wrongful death of a parent.

Odom was originally awarded $6 million. That amount was lowered to $4.5 million after the jury determined Odom’s mother was 25 percent responsible. The tobacco company ultimately asked for the damages to stay between $400,000 and $500,000. The trial court denied it, R.J. Reynolds appealed, and the appeals court sided with the company.

“Instead of properly applying the abuse of discretion standard and this court’s well-established precedent, which entitles both a jury’s verdict and a trial judge’s ruling on a motion for remittitur to great deference, the 4th District relied on four district court of appeal decisions to hold that the trial court erred in denying the motion for remittitur in this case,” the Supreme Court said in the opinion. 

It went on to say the 4th District should not have had a “no matter” attitude when it decided that an adult child who lived independently from their late parent should not receive a multimillion-dollar compensation in a wrongful death lawsuit.

The Supreme Court added the 4th District erred and misapplied the abuse of discretion when it evaluated the trial court’s decision to deny the motion for remittitur.

Also, the Supreme Court said the trial court is the entity that didn’t abuse its discretion when it denied the motion of remittitur and followed the standard law when it decided whether it was appropriate in this case. The Supreme Court went on to say the 4th District shouldn’t have created a cap on the noneconomic damages – especially because the Legislature and the current Supreme Court has never set a cap on cases like this one. 

Considering this, the Supreme Court quashed the 4th District’s decision and remanded for reinstatement of the judgment. It also awarded Odom attorney’s fees related to the appeal.

Justices R. Fred Lewis, Peggy A. Quince, Jorge Labarga and Alan Lawson concurred.

Justice Ricky Polston dissented and Chief Justice Charles Canady concurred with the dissension. 

In the dissension, Polston said the case doesn’t conflict with previous precedents. He said the appeals court actually evaluated other similar cases when it decided Odom’s relationship didn’t justify the amount of the award. Ultimately, Polston said the Supreme Court doesn’t have jurisdiction over the case.

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