The Florida Supreme Court ruled last month that the widow of a smoker who died of lung cancer can seek punitive damages against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. on strict liability and negligence claims, resolving an appellate split on the issue and marking a big win for Engle progeny Plaintiffs. The state’s high court overturned a First District Court of Appeal decision denying Plaintiff Lucille Soffer’s bid for punitive damages, ruling that the trial court’s denial of the motion to amend the class action complaint in the original Engle v. Liggett Group case was “not based on the merits of the request but instead rested on the procedural posture at the time.”
It should be noted that even though the Florida Supreme Court decertified the original Engle class and overturned a $145 billion verdict, the court allowed up to 700,000 individuals who could have won judgments to rely on the jury’s findings in that case to file suits of their own. The court in the current opinion said:
The procedural posture of the case changed entirely when this court vacated the entire punitive damages award of $145 billion and the related findings on punitive damages, thus wiping the slate clean as it relates to punitive damages and requiring each individual plaintiff to prove entitlement to punitive damages in his or her individual lawsuit.
The court also ruled that the demand for punitive damages is dependent on an underlying claim and is not a separate cause of action, so a Plaintiff can ask for punitive damages on any properly pled claim that is not time-barred. Soffer was awarded $2 million in compensatory damages for the 1992 death of her husband Maurice Soffer from smoking-induced lung cancer.
In the Soffer case, the First District in October 2012 affirmed a ruling determining that Engle progeny Plaintiffs cannot recover punitive damages on the strict liability and negligence claims because the lead Plaintiffs in the Engle case had not timely asserted claims for punitive damages under those theories. The First District said that adding those punitive damages claims would unjustifiably broaden the scope and effect of Engle and change the nature of the litigation. But one year after the First District’s decision, the Second District ruled the opposite way, pointing out that the high court in the Engle case made two holdings with regard to punitive damages, neither of which creates a bar to individual Plaintiffs seeking punitive damages for strict liability and negligence claims.
With its ruling, the Second District noted the appeals court split on the issue and certified the question to the Florida Supreme Court. Soffer is represented by John S. Mills of The Mills Firm PA, by Mark A. Avera, Rod Smith and Dawn M. Vallejos-Nichols of Avera & Smith LLP and by James W. Gustafson Jr. of Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley PA. They have done an outstanding job in this litigation.