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Florida Supreme Court Authorizes Punitive Damages in Tobacco Litigation

Florida Supreme Court Authorizes Punitive Damages in Tobacco Litigation

Yesterday the Florida Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in the case of Soffer v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, opening the door for juries to award punitive damages in Engle tobacco cases in courts throughout the state.  This holding will have a huge and immediate impact in state court Engle cases as well as other cases involving punitive damages claims.

By way of background, Engle cases are personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits filed in the wake of the Florida Supreme Court’s decision which decertified a class action originally brought by Miami pediatrician Howard Engle in 1994.  The jury trial in that case lasted nearly two years, culminating in a verdict that included a punitive damages award of $145 billion.  The massive verdict, in turn, resulted in a lengthy appeal process, at the end of which the Florida Supreme Court decertified the class, but waived the statutes of limitations for the class members for a set period of time, and allowed those class members to rely upon multiple findings of liability against the tobacco manufacturers.

Since the 2006 Engle ruling was handed down, thousands of tobacco lawsuits have been filed, and have already been tried or are awaiting trial in courts throughout the state.  Many of these trials have resulted in large individual verdicts, which in turn have engendered more rounds of appeal.  One of the recurring issues in appeals throughout the state has revolved around whether the individual plaintiffs can pursue punitive damages.  The First District Court of Appeal, which was later joined by Third and Fourth District Courts of Appeal, held that the plaintiffs were not, reasoning that such damages were not available because the individual plaintiffs, having relied upon the Engle findings, were bound by the litigation posture of that case.  The Second District Court of Appeal rejected this approach, instead holding that punitive damages were available to Engle plaintiffs, pointing out that nothing in the Engle decision limited the class members from pursuing punitive damages in subsequent cases.

The Florida Supreme Court gave three primary reasons for overruling the First, Third, and Fourth District Courts of Appeal.  First, the Court explained that the procedural posture of the Engle case had been wiped clean with respect to punitive damages after the 2006 decision, leaving room for the issue to be litigated in subsequent cases.  Second, the Court rejected the manufacturer’s argument that the statute of limitations would bar punitive damages claims, reasoning that “a claim for punitive damages is not a separate, free-standing cause of action subject to a separate statute of limitations, but is rather a remedy that can be sought based on any properly pled cause of action.”  Third, the Court pointed out that the legal standard necessary to establish a claim for punitive damages requires an elevated showing above that needed for strict liability or negligence, and as such rejected the manufacturer’s argument that it would be prejudiced by allowing punitive damages claims to proceed.

Yesterday’s ruling will have an obvious and immediate impact in Engle lawsuits around the state as all Engle plaintiffs will now be on equal footing with respect to punitive damages.  Additionally, the opinion will also have an impact on other cases where defendants may attempt to invoke the statute of limitations as a defense against punitive damages.  The Court’s ruling makes it clear that punitive damages claims are timely so long as the underlying claim is timely, shutting down any punitive damages-specific statute of limitations defense.  A copy of yesterday’s order can be obtained at this link.

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