In between hours of oral argument over the federal health care legislation, the justices took the time to deny certiorari in the first of the Florida tobacco suits to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
Florida’s individual tobacco suits, known as the Engle litigation, involve separate trials held to determine if a plaintiff was addicted to cigarettes and whether that addiction caused his or her injury.
If the jury answers in the affirmative, they are then presented with the Engle liability findings. Those findings include that the defendants were negligent, that cigarettes are defective and unreasonably dangerous, as well as addictive, and that the tobacco companies conspired to conceal health and addiction information with the intention of consumer reliance on the misinformation.
The tobacco company defendants have repeatedly argued that the use of the findings violates both Florida law and due process by allowing plaintiffs to rely on general findings by a prior jury that are unconnected to the facts of the instant case.
The cases on appeal to the Court included Martin v. R.J. Reynolds, where the widow of a chronic cigarette smoker who died of lung cancer in 1995 was awarded $28.3 million in damages; Campbell v. R.J. Reynolds., where the husband of a woman who died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease won $7.8 million; and a $17.5 million victory against Philip Morris for Amanda Jean Hall, whose husband died after smoking for 38 years.
Defendants Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds appealed the cases through the Florida court system and all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
On March 26, the justices denied certiorari without comment.
“The Supreme Court’s decision April 2 does not represent a ruling on the merits of Reynolds’s constitutional argument,” Jeff Raborn, vice president and assistant general counsel for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, said in a statement. “We remain confident in our position that the Florida courts’ use of general findings in one case to establish specific claims in subsequent cases violates our bedrock constitutional rights.”
Steve Callahan, a spokesperson for Philip Morris, agreed.
“The failure to grant review is not a decision on the merits of the case,” he said in a statement. “We continue to believe that we have strong due process challenges to the litigation and will continue to raise those challenges in Florida state and federal courts.”
But Edward Sweda Jr., a senior attorney for the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, said he was “ecstatic” about the justices’ decision to pass on the cases.
“At long last, Reynolds and the other major tobacco companies will be held accountable for their massive and reprehensible misconduct that harmed thousands of Florida smokers,” Sweda said in a statement.
Sweda said that of the 61 Engle progeny cases that have reached a verdict (excluding mistrials), the plaintiffs have won 41, and the defense has won 20.
Thousands of plaintiffs remain and individual trials continue.
Most recently, jurors awarded Dorothy Alexander $41 million in March after her husband, who smoked for four decades, died of lung cancer.