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Tobacco Companies Lose Appeal In 'Engle' Case

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 federal appeals court Wednesday rejected arguments of tobacco companies and upheld a $7.5 million verdict in favor of a longtime smoker who developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

The ruling by a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals came in what is known as an “Engle progeny case” — one of thousands of lawsuits filed in Florida against tobacco companies.

Those cases stem from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling that established critical findings about issues including the dangers of smoking and misrepresentation by cigarette makers. The appeals court ruled in favor of Pauline Burkhart, who began smoking in the 1950s and continued until the 1990s and alleged that smoking caused the disease commonly known as COPD.

A jury ruled in Burkhart’s favor, awarding $5 million in compensatory damages and $2.5 million in punitive damages.

The defendants, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Philip Morris USA, Inc., made a series of arguments in the appeal, including that the compensatory damages should have been reduced because Burkhart was found partly at fault.

But the appeals court upheld a district judge’s refusal to reduce the compensatory-damage award, in part because the jury found intentional acts of wrongdoing by the tobacco companies.

“In sum, we conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that Burkhart did not waive her right to avoid apportionment (of damages) on account of the jury’s intentional tort findings,” said the 45-page ruling, written by appeals-court Judge Gerald Tjoflat and joined by judges Frank Hull and Harvey Bartle III.