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Appeals Court Orders New Trial In Tobacco Case

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
p1 lawyer
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

In a sharply worded ruling, a state appeals court Friday ordered a new trial in the death of a smoker whose estate initially won a more than $23 billion verdict against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal, in an 18-page ruling, blasted an attorney for the estate of Michael Johnson Sr., pointing to the "depth and pervasiveness" of improper closing arguments in the Escambia County case.

"It is clear from the record that Robinson's trial strategy was to utterly vilify their opponent," appeals-court Judge Thomas Winokur wrote, referring to the personal representative of the estate named in the lawsuit. "In addition to accusing opposing counsel of participation in a scheme of deception, counsel for Robinson denigrated Reynolds as an unrepentant, anti-military, criminal predator, whom the jury must fight and destroy."

Thejury initially awarded nearly $16.9 million in compensatory damages and $23.6 billion in punitive damages. But the trial judge later tossed out the punitive-damages award as excessive and ordered a new trial for R.J. Reynolds on punitive damages.

Friday's ruling will require a new trial on the overall issues in the case, not just punitive damages.

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