Jacksonville, FL--A state court jury last week cleared R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris of punitive liability for the role the tobacco companies played in the death of a Florida smoker. Starr-Blundell v. R.J. Reynolds, et al., 07-12167-BXXX.
Jurors in Florida’s Fourth Circuit Court, in Duval County, needed less than an hour to reject a claim for punitive damages against the tobacco companies for the lung cancer death of Lucy Mae Starr, who smoked the companies’ brands for decades.
Terrell & Hogan’s Angelo Patacca, representing Teresa Starr-Blundell, requested a $3 million punitive award against each of the companies, for making cigarettes they knew were dangerous and addictive.
The trial that concluded last week follows one of the many twists in a massive, decades-long Florida class action against the nation’s tobacco companies.
The Starr-Blundell case is one of thousands of similar suits spun from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision decertifying Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a class-action originally filed in 1994. Although the state’s supreme court ruled that Engle-progeny cases must be tried individually, it found plaintiffs could rely on certain jury findings in the original case, including the determination that tobacco companies had placed a dangerous, addictive product on the market and had conspired to hide the dangers of smoking through much of the 20th century.
Last week’s verdict in the Starr-Blundell case follows a 2013 trial in the case, in which a jury found Starr a member of the Engle class under her negligence and strict liability claims and awarded $500,000 in compensatory damages. But it apportioned 80% of responsibility to Starr herself and, importantly, rejected her daughter’s fraud and conspiracy claims against the tobacco companies. That finding prohibited punitive recovery under the jurisdiction’s law in effect at the time.
However, in 2016, the Florida Supreme Court, in Soffer v. R.J. Reynolds, ruled Engle plaintiffs such as Starr-Blundell could seek punitive damages on negligence and strict liability claims against the cigarette makers, paving the way for trial in Starr-Blundell and similar cases on punitive damage claims.
The nine-day trial over punitives focused on the tobacco companies’ conduct, both during the years Starr smoked and, more recently, when the tobacco industry has been held to tougher regulations.
During last week’s closings, Patacca outlined a nearly half-century long, tobacco industry-wide scheme to hide the dangers and addictiveness of smoking. “Their degree of misconduct was unrestrained,” Patacca said noting once-secret, tobacco company documents discussing methods to cast doubt on the dangers of cigarettes. That scheme, Patacca argued, only ended because the tobacco industry could no longer hold back the wave of government action and public outcry. “It was a continuing course of conduct from 1953 when they joined arms together and agreed, until they were forced by the tsunami of the state attorneys general and public opinion to finally publicly admit [hazards of smoking] in ‘99 and 2000.”
But the defense contended that strict federal oversight of cigarettes, combined with tough restrictions on tobacco messaging over the last two decades argued against imposing punitive damages in the case. During last week’s closing arguments, Shook Hardy’s Kevin Reilly reminded jurors that the tobacco companies were now regulated and subject to inspection by the Food and Drug Administration.
Reilly added the tobacco companies’ conduct did not affect Starr in a way that warranted punitive damages in the case. “Just because somebody at Philip Morris or R.J. Reynolds had a bad idea, wrote a bad idea in a memo, made a recommendation,” Reilly told jurors, “that doesn’t result in harm to Mrs. Starr.”
Email Arlin Crisco at email@example.com.
Teresa Starr-Blundell is represented by Terrell Hogan’s John Wayne Hogan and Angelo Patacca.
Philip Morris is represented by Shook Hardy’s Kenneth Reilly.
R.J. Reynolds is represented by King & Spalding’s Philip Green and Randall Bassett.
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