Florida Appeals Court Throws Out $15.5M Award for Smoker's Throat Cancer Death

Posted by Arlin Crisco on Jan 19, 2021 2:21:27 PM


Tallahassee, FL— A Florida state appeals court last week reversed a $15.5 million total award in a case against R.J. Reynolds over the throat cancer death of a long-time smoker. 

In an opinion written by Judge Bradford Thomas, the First District Court of Appeal in Florida concluded a jury instruction failed to state the proof required to find Reynolds liable for fraudulent concealment. The jury instruction erred, Thomas wrote, in not charging that the plaintiff must prove the smoker relied to his detriment on a false statement made by the tobacco company.  

The decision overturns a $2 million award in compensatory damages and a subsequent $13.5 million punitive award to the family of Tyrone Dixon, who died in 1994 after years of smoking Reynolds cigarettes. Dixon’s family claims his fatal throat cancer was caused by a long-standing addiction to cigarettes and fueled by Reynolds’s involvement in a campaign to hide smoking’s dangers.  Reynolds argues Dixon chose to smoke, despite knowing its risks. 

The case is one of thousands that stem from Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a 1994 Florida state court class-action lawsuit against Reynolds and the nation's other tobacco companies, in which jurors found for the plaintiffs. The state's supreme court later decertified the class, ruling the cases could be tried individually. So-called "Engle-progeny plaintiffs" are entitled to various findings from the original Engle jury - including that tobacco companies placed a dangerous, addictive product on the market - if they prove certain individual elements, including that the smoker at the heart of the case was addicted to cigarettes and that the addiction caused a smoking-related disease.

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The ruling sets aside the compensatory award issued in an August 2018 trial, and the punitive award handed down in a February 2019 punitive-only proceeding. Jurors in the 2018 trial found Reynolds liable for fraudulent concealment, among other claims. CVN covered both proceedings. 

In reaching last week’s conclusion, the appellate court quoted prior case law in noting that, despite the case's Engle progeny status, the fraudulent concealment claim required individual proof to establish. “[E]ven with the benefit of prior Engle findings, plaintiffs claiming fraudulent concealment must prove that they relied to their detriment on false statements from the tobacco companies," Judge Thomas quoted from the appellate court's prior decision in R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Whitmire. "In the context of fraudulent concealment, 'causation' includes individual reliance."

Judges Lori Rowe and M. Kemmerly Thomas concurred in the decision. 

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Related Information

Read the full appellate opinion. 

Watch the 2019 punitive proceeding of Bessent-Dixon v. R.J. Reynolds

Watch the 2018 trial in Bessent-Dixon v. R.J. Reynolds

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Topics: tobacco, Engle Progeny, Florida, Bessent-Dixon v. R.J. Reynolds