Product Liability & Toxics Law

R.J. Reynolds Must Pay Widow $2 Million, Face Trial on Punitives

Sept. 15, 2020, 11:32 PM

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. must face a separate trial on punitive damages in a widow’s case over her husband’s death from lung cancer because the issues are separate from those in her liability trial, where she obtained more than $2 million in compensatory damages, the Eleventh Circuit ruled Tuesday.

The appeals court affirmed the compensatory award, rejecting the cigarette maker’s arguments that the trial court should have allowed certain evidence about her marriage and blocked some arguments by her attorneys. And Reynolds must pay promptly once the appellate decision is final, the panel said.

Mary Sowers alleged that her husband Charles smoked one to three packs of cigarettes per day for 50 years, according to the court. He died from lung cancer in 1995.

The case is part of litigation that arose following decertification of a Florida smokers’ class in Engle v. Liggett Group Inc. A jury in Engle found significant liability-related and other facts about tobacco company conduct that the Florida Supreme Court allowed to be given “res judicata effect” in subsequent individual suits by former class members.

A jury in Sowers’ case found Reynolds liable on the strict liability and negligence claims and found Charles Sowers 50% at fault. It decided the company wasn’t liable for two intentional torts, fraudulent concealment and conspiracy to conceal. It determined damages in the amount of $4.25 million, which the trial court reduced to $2.12 million to reflect her husband’s own fault.

Following Florida precedents, the district court said punitive damages are only available where a plaintiff prevails on intentional tort claims and didn’t send the issue to the jury. Later, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in another case that punitives are available on strict liability and negligence claims.

Sowers was eligible for a trial on punitives, the parties agreed. But Reynolds said the issues were intertwined with her husband’s fault, and thus the new trial should encompass liability as well—or Sowers should forgo seeking punitives.

But “the first jury did not, as R.J. Reynolds contends, answer any of the factual questions that the remand jury will have to answer before determining whether to award punitive damages,” Judge Ed Carnes said for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

And the “first jury’s comparative fault determination in this case did not require it to make any findings that are interwoven with any of the findings that the remand jury will have to make in reaching a punitive damages verdict,” Carnes said. “A close look at the Florida law on comparative fault and on punitive damages reveals that the two determinations do not overlap.”

Judges Elizabeth L. Branch and Gerald B. Tjoflat also served on the panel.

The case is Sowers v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 2020 BL 351759, 11th Cir., No. 18-11901, 9/15/20.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martina Barash in Washington at mbarash@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Peggy Aulino at maulino@bloomberglaw.com

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