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Florida Supreme Court To Weigh In On Major Tobacco Case

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

Arguments involve allegations that the tobacco industry conspired to conceal info about smoking. More broadly, companies want justices to reconsider the decision that spurred the torrent of litigation.

Nearly 15 years after a Florida Supreme Court decision unleashed thousands of lawsuits against the tobacco industry, justices next week will consider a case that could make it harder to successfully sue cigarette makers.

The court will hear arguments in a case that focuses on a major issue involving allegations that the tobacco industry conspired to conceal information about smoking. But more broadly, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Philip Morris USA are seeking to use the case to convince justices to reconsider the underlying 2006 decision that spurred the torrent of litigation.

The cases stemming from the 2006 decision have their own name --- “Engle progeny” cases.

A result of an unsuccessful class-action lawsuit, the 2006 decision established critical findings about issues such as the dangers of smoking and misrepresentation by cigarette makers. It also provided a window for individual class members to file lawsuits against tobacco companies and allowed them to use the findings in those cases.

Smokers or their surviving family members filed roughly 8,000 cases, with many still tied up in the courts.

The Supreme Court on June 2 will hear an appeal by the estate of John C. Price, who started smoking at age 12 and died at age 74 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. A Duval County jury awarded $6.4 million in compensatory damages in the estate’s Engle progeny case against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

But a panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal in 2019 overturned that verdict and ordered a new trial, with its reasoning potentially applying to numerous other cases. The ruling centered on a claim of conspiracy to conceal information about the dangers of smoking. R.J. Reynolds contended that the estate needed to show that Price relied to his “detriment” on a statement that concealed or omitted information.

The Tallahassee-based appeals court agreed with R.J. Reynolds that the jury should have been instructed to weigh the evidence in that way. But in a brief filed at the Supreme Court, the estate said three other district courts of appeal have not required Engle progeny plaintiffs to show such a reliance.

“As three other appellate courts recognize, because of the unique nature of the concealment conspiracy by the Engle defendants (tobacco companies), the progeny plaintiffs are not required to prove that they relied upon any specific misleading statements to establish their fraud-based claims,” the estate's brief said. “Rather, it is sufficient that the smoker was misled by the Engle defendants’ concealment of what they knew about the dangers and addictiveness of their product.”

But R.J. Reynolds attorneys contended in a brief that the appeals court correctly determined that jurors needed to find a more-specific reliance on a statement.

“The First District therefore correctly determined that the trial court should have instructed the jury to decide whether Mr. Price detrimentally relied on one of those incomplete statements,” the R.J. Reynolds brief said. “Only then could the jury impose liability on Reynolds for breaching a duty to disclose (information) arising from making materially incomplete statements.”

While the outcome of the conspiracy issue could affect numerous Engle progeny cases, R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris also have asked the Supreme Court to go beyond the appeals-court ruling and revisit the 2006 decision. They have been backed by the Florida Justice Reform Institute, a Tallahassee-backed group that lobbies the Legislature and becomes involved in court cases to try to limit lawsuits.

R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief, are asking the Supreme Court to reconsider the use of the 2006 findings in the subsequent Engle progeny cases. In its brief, R.J. Reynolds said such a change “would require progeny plaintiffs to prove each element of their claims with evidence independent of the findings --- just like any other plaintiff.”

But attorneys for Price’s estate pointed to “decades of wrongful acts” by tobacco companies and said the use of the 2006 findings has repeatedly been upheld by courts. The estate’s attorneys wrote that the “arguments made here were decided against them (the companies) with finality long ago and, therefore, are not subject to relitigation.”

The tobacco companies’ arguments, however, come after a massive shift at the Supreme Court since January 2019, when three liberal-leaning justices retired and were replaced by justices appointed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. The now-conservative court has shown a willingness to move away from some court precedents.

That does not appear to be lost on R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris. In their briefs, both tobacco companies cited a key 2020 ruling in which the court tossed out an earlier decision that required unanimous jury recommendations before defendants could be sentenced to death in murder cases.

“As this (Supreme) Court recently explained, its ‘job is to apply (the) law correctly to the case before us. When we are convinced that a precedent clearly conflicts with the law we are sworn to uphold, precedent normally must yield,’” R.J. Reynolds attorneys wrote, quoting from the death-penalty ruling.

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.