Pointing to improper comments during closing arguments, a state appeals court Wednesday overturned a multimillion-dollar verdict against tobacco companies in a lawsuit stemming from a smoker's death.
A three-judge panel ruled in favor of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Lorillard Tobacco Co. and ordered a new trial in the Palm Beach County case filed by Kathleen Gafney, the widow of smoker Frank Gafney.
A jury awarded $5.8 million in damages in the case, with the tobacco companies liable for 66 percent of that amount --- about $3.8 million --- and the dead smoker found at fault for 34 percent.
R.J. Reynolds and Lorillard, which later merged, appealed the verdict because they said the widow's attorneys made improper comments aimed, in part, at getting jurors to "send a message" to tobacco companies. The appeals court agreed.
"We reverse due to improper comments made to the jury during appellee's (Kathleen Gafney's) counsel's closing argument,'' said the nine-page ruling, written by Judge Mark Klingensmith and joined by Chief Judge Cory Ciklin and Burton Conner. "Specifically, statements requesting the jury to send a message through a compensatory damage award, and insinuating that appellants' (the tobacco companies') attorneys were involved in a conspiracy to conceal the addictive nature of smoking."
A brief filed by the widow's attorneys said Frank Gafney died in 1995 at age 59 after suffering from lung cancer that metastasized to his brain. It said Frank Gafney started smoking by age 15.