• Florida 4th District Court of Appeal RJ Reynolds Tobacco v Odom

Activist Judges Throw Out Six Million Dollar Jury Verdict Awarded to Grieving Floridian

The pain caused by the loss of a parent cannot be objectively measured.  For that reason, Florida law has long entrusted ordinary citizens to call upon their common sense and experience to determine a fair award in wrongful death actions involving a deceased parent.  Unfortunately, in R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Odom, 41 Fla. L. Weekly D2670 (Fla. 4th DCA 2016), the 4th DCA recently rejected our state’s longstanding tradition of trusting and allowing Florida jurors to make this tough decision.

The Odom case arises out of the death of Juanita Thurston.  The class action was filed by Juanita’s daughter, Gwendolyn, against R.J. Reynolds.  After hearing all of the evidence, the jury determined that Gwendolyn should be compensated in the amount of $6,000,000 for the loss of her mother.  R.J. Reynolds balked at the number, and asked the trial court to set it aside or reduce the amount.  This argument was rejected by the trial judge, and R.J. Reynolds then sought review by the 4th District Court of Appeal.

[PDF] R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Odom

In overruling the trial judge’s decision to let the jury’s verdict stand, the 4th DCA attempted to divine and apply a cold and objective standard to a uniquely human and emotional loss.  Specifically, the Court determined that adult children who are “financially or otherwise dependent” upon the deceased parent should be entitled to ask for and receive more money than those who are financially independent.  Because Gwendolyn was married and had children of her own, she did not fit this cold standard, and according to the Court’s ruling, was therefore not deserving of the jury’s award.  Remarkably, the 4th DCA came to this conclusion despite also acknowledging that “the evidence established that [Gwendolyn] and her mother had a very close and unique relationship,” and that Gwendolyn “took her mother to many of her appointments and was devastated by her decline and subsequent death.”

We believe Odom was wrongly decided with respect to the issue of wrongful death damages.  Florida law has long-recognized that non-economic damages in general, and damages for the loss of a loved one in particular, are impossible to ascertain on a purely objective basis.  That is why we trust jurors to call upon their own common sense when reviewing the evidence as to a particular individual’s loss.  Indeed, the law has long recognized that determining non-economic damages is, by its very nature, an inherently individualized inquiry that will turn on the unique facts of each case.  Remarkably, despite giving lip-service to many of these same controlling legal principles, the 4th DCA nonetheless elected to construct an objective standard and apply it to the facts of Gwendolyn’s case.  The end result of this startling break from precedent and tradition is a huge victory for big tobacco, at the expense of a grieving Floridian.

The decision did have a silver-lining, however.  R.J. Reynolds also argued that the plaintiff’s counsel had improperly called upon the jury to punish the company for its “failure to accept responsibility” for Juanita’s death.  The Court rejected this argument, explaining that “the fact that RJR failed to acknowledge its conduct was wrongful was a proper topic for discussion” during the punitive damages phase of the trial, after the jury had already determined compensatory damages.