St. Petersburg, FL— A Florida state court jury awarded $26.75 million to the family of a Florida smoker after finding the nation’s two largest tobacco companies responsible for his cancer death. Duignan v. R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris, 13-010978-CI.
The award includes $2.75 million in compensatory damages handed down last week and $24 million in punitives imposed equally against R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris Tuesday for the 1992 cancer death of Douglas Duignan.
Duignan, 42 when he died, smoked up to two packs of cigarettes a day for more than 25 years. His family contends Reynolds and Philip Morris’s role in a conspiracy to hide the dangers of cigarettes hooked Duignan to nicotine and caused his fatal cancer.
The award more than doubles the $12 million handed down in a 2015 trial in the case. That verdict was thrown out two years later, however, after the Florida Court of Appeals for the Second District found the trial judge in the case improperly discouraged a jury readback request.
The case is among thousands that stem from Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a 1994 Florida state court class-action lawsuit against tobacco companies. The state's supreme court later decertified the class, but ruled Engle progeny cases may be tried individually. Plaintiffs are entitled to the benefit of the jury's findings in the original verdict, including the determination that tobacco companies placed a dangerous, addictive product on the market and hid the dangers of smoking.
To be entitled to those findings, however, each plaintiff must prove the smoker at the heart of their case suffered from nicotine addiction that was the legal cause of a smoking-related disease.
After Friday’s verdict finding class membership and awarding compensatories, the two-day punitive phase of trial turned on whether harsh financial punishment should be imposed in light of broad changes by the companies, and the industry at-large, over the last two decades.
During Tuesday’s closing statements, Shook Hardy & Bacon’s Kenneth Reilly reminded jurors that the tobacco industry now faced strict oversight by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, while Philip Morris had paid billions of dollars under a settlement with states’ attorneys-general. Meanwhile, he said, the company had gone farther than required in restricting their marketing.
“What message are you guys going to send to the people who are operating the business today and have been for a quarter of a century?” Reilly asked jurors. “They’ve never failed to comply with the FDA requirements. They’ve never failed to comply with the attorneys-general requirements. They’ve never been criticized, and look at all the voluntary things they did.”
Jones Day’s Jack Williams, representing Reynolds, agreed, and argued Reynolds now sent clear messages about smoking’s dangers while spending decades and billions of dollars trying to make a safer cigarette. “Punishing Reynolds now would… be saying that if a company changes and becomes more responsible and tries to do more of the right thing, it’s still… going to get punished,” Williams said.
But Searcy Denney’s James Gustafson argued that none of the changes the companies detailed affected Duignan’s ultimate end.
“Nothing that the defendants brought you… mitigated, or made less severe, what they did to Douglas Duignan,” Gustafson said. “If they don’t get punished for what they did, what does that do to deter others from doing the same thing?”
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The Duignan family is represented by Searcy Denney’s James Gustafson and Gordon & Partners’ Gary Paige.
Philip Morris is represented by Shook Hardy & Bacon’s Kenneth Reilly.
R.J. Reynolds is represented by Jones Day’s Jack Williams.