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Verdict Overturned In Smokers’ Death

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

In a case involving the death of a man who started smoking at age 12, an appeals court Thursday tossed out a verdict against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. because of an error in jury instructions. 

A panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal ordered a new trial in the Duval County case filed by John C. Price and continued by his estate after he died.

The ruling said Price, who started smoking at 12, smoked two to three packs of cigarettes a day for most of his adult life. The lawsuit against R.J. Reynolds is what is known as an “Engle progeny” case --- one of thousands of lawsuits filed in Florida against tobacco companies.

Those cases stemmed from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling that established critical findings about issues including the dangers of smoking and misrepresentation by cigarette makers.

A jury in the Price case awarded $6.4 million in compensatory damages, with R.J. Reynolds found to be 40 percent at fault and Price found to be 60 percent at fault, the ruling said. But the Tallahassee-based appeals court ordered a new trial because it said a circuit judge did not properly give a jury instruction involving an allegation that the cigarette maker conspired to conceal fraudulent information about smoking.

The majority opinion, written by Judge Lori Rowe and joined by Judge Brad Thomas, said the trial judge failed to give an instruction about determining whether Price relied on the fraudulent information.

“Here, no other jury instruction informed the jury of the need to find that Price detrimentally relied on a false or misleading statement by RJR,” Rowe wrote.

But Judge Scott Makar dissented, pointing to an earlier case that he said established the jury could “infer that the misleading ads detrimentally affected Mr. Price’s smoking behavior, thereby establishing reliance.” Makar wrote that Price was “aware of the pervasive misleading advertising campaign, which affected his smoking decisions. When asked how RJR’s ads injured him, he testified they presented the ‘Marlboro Man’ as if to ‘make everything look hunky-dory’ and ‘Joe Camel’ and the ‘Old Gold Dancers’ who ‘made (smoking) look like the thing to do, the in crowd. You're in the in crowd.’”