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Court Backs Adult Child In Lawsuit Over Smoker’s Death

Florida Supreme Court
The Florida Channel
Florida Supreme Court building in Tallahassee.

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday overturned a ruling that would have blocked an adult from collecting millions of dollars in damages in a lawsuit stemming from the smoking-related death of her mother.

Justices, in a 5-2 decision, sided with Gwendolyn Odom, whose mother, Juanita Thurston, died after suffering from lung cancer.

A wrongful-death lawsuit filed in Palm Beach County resulted in a jury finding R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. at fault and awarding $6 million in “non-economic” damages.

That amount was reduced to $4.5 million, because Thurston was held to be 25 percent responsible for her illness. 

But the 4th District Court of Appeal rejected the award, saying it was excessive for a case brought by an adult child of dead smoker. 

The Supreme Court, however, overturned that ruling, with Justice Barbara Pariente writing a majority opinion that was joined by justices R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince, Jorge Labarga and Alan Lawson.

“We … hold that the Fourth District erred in creating a cap on the amount of noneconomic damages a financially independent adult child may be awarded for the wrongful death of his or her parent in conflict with this (Supreme) Court’s precedent,” Pariente wrote. “Neither the Legislature nor this court has established a cap on the amount of noneconomic damages a survivor may recover in a wrongful death action, and we decline to do so today. Accordingly, we quash the Fourth District’s decision and remand for reinstatement of the judgment.”

In a dissent joined by Chief Justice Charles Canady, Justice Ricky Polston wrote that the Supreme Court did not have “jurisdiction” to consider the case because it did not conflict with any other legal decisions.

The Odom case is one of thousands in Florida known as "Engle progeny" cases. Such cases are linked to a 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling that established critical findings about the health dangers of smoking and misrepresentation by cigarette makers.