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Justices Agree To Weigh Damages In Smoker's Death

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A divided Florida Supreme Court has decided to take up a case that focuses on the amount of damages an adult child should be able to receive in the smoking-related death of her mother.

Justices, in a 4-3 decision Tuesday, agreed to consider an appeal in a case filed against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. by Gwendolyn Odom, whose mother, Juanita Thurston, died of lung cancer after smoking cigarettes.

In the Palm Beach County case, a jury found R.J. Reynolds at fault and awarded $6 million in compensatory damages. That amount was reduced to $4.5 million, because Thurston was held to be 25 percent responsible for her illness, according to court documents.

The jury also awarded $14 million in punitive damages. But the 4th District Court of Appeal last year said the compensatory-damage award was excessive for a case brought by the adult child of a dead smoker. It rejected the compensatory-damage award and, as an extension, the amount of punitive damages.

In asking the Supreme Court to take up the case, Odom's attorneys wrote, in part, that the 4th District Court of Appeal ruling failed to recognize the “unique role” adult children can play in caring for their parents.

“The district court's decision presumes that certain survivors — independent adult children — always occupy a different footing from other statutory survivors, when in fact their losses may be more compelling (or indeed less so),” Odom's attorneys wrote in a March petition to the Supreme Court. “Certainly, in cases where a person is older and languishes with a chronic condition caused by tortious conduct, adult children are often left alone to care for that person.”

As is common, the Supreme Court on Tuesday did not explain its reasons for agreeing to hear the case. But the majority was made up of Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince, while justices Charles Canady, Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson dissented.