Florida court upholds $30 million tobacco award

Reuters News
Posted: Jul 19, 2011 4:54 PM
Florida court upholds $30 million tobacco award

By Jane Sutton

MIAMI (Reuters) - The Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a jury's order that the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co pay nearly $30 million to a woman whose husband died of lung cancer after decades of smoking its cigarettes.

The court issued a brief ruling saying it would not review the product liability award nor entertain any further motions for rehearing. The tobacco company, a unit of Reynolds American Inc, argued the award was excessive.

The ruling could affect thousands of pending cases.

In 2009, a state court jury in Pensacola, Florida, ordered Reynolds to pay more than $3.3 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages to Mathilde Martin. Her husband, Benny Martin, died in 1995 of lung cancer that she blamed on his long-time smoking of Reynolds' "Lucky Strike" cigarettes.

The jury said Reynolds was 66 percent responsible for Benny Martin's death and that Martin, who started smoking in the 1940s before health warnings were added to cigarette packages, was 34 percent responsible.

The award was the by far the largest to date among the "Engle progeny" cases filed against tobacco companies by sick Florida smokers or their relatives. The cases stem from a landmark 1994 class-action lawsuit filed by a pediatrician, the late Dr. Howard Engle, that produced a $145 billion judgment against cigarette makers six years later.

The Florida Supreme Court overturned the Engle award in 2006 and ruled that Florida's ailing smokers could not sue as a class, or group.

But it made it easier for them to sue individually by upholding the trial jury's findings that smoking causes disease, that nicotine is addictive, that cigarettes are defective and dangerous, and that tobacco companies concealed the health effects of smoking. Thousands of individual cases are still pending in Florida.

The case is R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company vs Mathilde Martin, etc, No. SC11-483.

(Editing by Steve Orlofsky)