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Court Upholds $3M Tobacco Verdict

Lit Cigarette
The Florida Channel
The court rejected arguements by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

A divided appeals court Wednesday upheld a $3 million judgment in a St. Lucie County lawsuit stemming from the lung-cancer death of a man who started smoking at age 14.

A panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal rejected arguments by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in the lawsuit filed by Jacqueline Burgess, whose husband, Johnny, died in 1993 at age 59.

The appeals court ruling focused on R.J. Reynolds’ argument that plaintiffs’ attorneys had not shown that Johnny Burgess relied on information from the tobacco company in making decisions about smoking cigarettes.

That argument involved fraudulent concealment and conspiracy claims against the company.

A majority of the appellate panel turned down R.J. Reynolds’ request for a judgment in its favor or a new trial.

“The plaintiff presented sufficient evidence from which the jury could infer that Mr. Burgess detrimentally relied upon the tobacco industry’s pervasive advertising and creation of a false controversy about the risks of smoking,” said the majority opinion, written by Judge Carole Taylor and joined by Judge Cory Ciklin. “Mr. Burgess did not need to prove that he relied on any specific statement from the tobacco industry.”

But in a dissent, Judge Jeffrey Kuntz wrote that there “was no evidence presented to show Mr. Burgess relied on statements or actions” of R.J. Reynolds.

“No witness testified that Mr. Burgess ever said he had even seen a tobacco advertisement,” Kuntz wrote. “One witness testified that Mr. Burgess often watched the ‘Flintstones,’ and there was evidence the tobacco companies sometimes advertised during that show, but there was no testimony that Mr. Burgess ever saw one of the advertisements. And while he believed filtered cigarettes were safer, he believed that because his friends told him so.”

The decision 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.