Appeals Court Affirms $3.75M Tobacco Award, But Certifies Conflict on Key Punitives Law

Posted by Arlin Crisco on Mar 5, 2021 3:31:55 PM


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Lakeland, FL— A Florida appeals court this week upheld a $3.75 million award against R.J. Reynolds for the death of a long-time smoker, but certified a conflict between appellate jurisdictions over which punitive damages law applies to this and similar cases in the state's long-running Engle progeny litigation.

Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal on Wednesday affirmed the 2017 award, which includes $500,000 in compensatory damages and $3.25 million in punitives imposed against Reynolds for the respiratory-disease related death of Dorothy Durrance after 50 years of smoking.

The trial was covered gavel-to-gavel by CVN. 

Wednesday’s opinion, by Judge Robert Morris, holds that the state’s punitive damages statute in effect before 1999 controlled in the case, one of thousands of so-called “Engle progeny” claims spun from an ultimately decertified class action against the nation’s tobacco companies. 

Florida's 1999 amendment to its punitive damages statute, Fla. Stat. § 768.73,  imposes stricter limitations on when and how much a plaintiff can recover in punitives. Among the restrictions, the law now caps punitives at 3 times the compensatory award, or $500,000, whichever is greater, in most instances. 

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On appeal, Reynolds argued the trial judge in Durrance erred in failing to charge jurors on the 1999 law, because Durrance died in 2000. 

But the court of appeals, relying on its prior determination in R.J. Reynolds v. Evers  held that the earlier version of the law applied to the case because Durrance's death related back to the original Engle class action, certified in 1996. 

“The plaintiff's right to file the wrongful death action was based on the decedent's status as an Engle class member, i.e., the ‘manifestation of a tobacco-related disease or medical condition’ that qualified the decedent to be a member of the Engle class,” Morris wrote. 

“Because the plaintiff ‘was entitled to the res judicata effect of the Engle class, her cause of action was not controlled by the 1999 amendment to the punitive damages statute,’” Morris concluded, quoting Evers.  

But in certifying a conflict in jurisdictions, Morris noted the Fifth District Court of Appeal, in R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Sheffield, held the 1999 statute controlled in cases where the Engle progeny smoker died after its passage. 

With Sheffield on appeal, the stage is now set for the Florida Supreme Court to resolve the conflict.

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Related Information

Read the full opinion. 

Watch the Durrance trial. 

Topics: Durrance v. R.J. Reynolds