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Tobacco Punitive Damages Ruling Overturned

Warning label on cigarettes
Wikimedia Commons
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Setting up a possible battle at the Florida Supreme Court, an appeals court Friday overturned a ruling that involved R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. being ordered to pay $5 million in punitive damages to the estate of a smoker who died of lung cancer. 

The 2-1 decision by a panel of the 5th District Court of Appeal 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 such as the dangers of smoking and misrepresentation by cigarette makers.

The estate of Valton Sheffield, who died in 2007, filed a lawsuit against tobacco companies including R.J. Reynolds. An Orange County jury awarded $1.8 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages to the estate.

But R.J. Reynolds argued that a circuit judge improperly applied a pre-1999 version of a state punitive damages law to the case. Changes made to the law in 1999 could have shielded R.J. Reynolds from paying punitive damages.

Appeals-court judges James Edwards and Jay Cohen agreed Friday with the tobacco company’s arguments, ordering that the dispute go back to circuit court. But Judge Brian Lambert dissented, saying that the pre-1999 punitive damages law should apply because Sheffield was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1994.

Though the majority overturned the punitive-damages verdict, it acknowledged that its ruling conflicted with decisions by other state appellate courts. As a result, it suggested the Florida Supreme Court take up the issue --- a move known as certifying an issue to the Supreme Court.