In a 6-1 opinion issued this morning, the Florida Supreme Court has upheld the rights of thousands of litigants to pursue claims against the cigarette industry while “declin[ing] the defendants invitation to rewrite Engle.” The court refers here to the landmark Engle class action. In 2007 the Florida Supreme Court held that thousands of class members could proceed individually against the defendants, which include tobacco giants Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Liggett Group and Lorillard.
The cigarette defendants appealed the original Engle ruling and the U.S. Supreme Court rejected that appeal in 2007 (552 U.S. 941). Despite a steady stream of press statements and financial circulars predicting that the federal courts would dismantle the Florida Supreme Court’s Engle decision, the Supreme Court denied certiorari last year in the lead case of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Martin (11-754) and in three separate tag-along cases to Martin.
The Florida Supreme Court has now directly reaffirmed the ruling and rejected the cigarette manufacturers’ Due Process claims, stating, “As illustrated by hundreds of witnesses, thousands of documents and exhibits, and tens of thousands of pages of testimony, the Engle defendants had notice and the opportunity to defend against all theories of liability for each of the class’s claims in the year-long Phase I trial.” The court pointed out that, contrary to the impression conveyed by the industry, “individual plaintiffs do not simply walk into court, state that they are entitled to the benefit of the Phase I findings, prove their damages, and walk away with a judgment against the Engle defendants.” The individual trials are instead lengthy affairs involving numerous expert and fact witnesses focused on each individual plaintiff.
The industry has suffered more than $500 million in verdicts to date in such cases. Several thousand cases await trial.
The full opinion is freely available here: http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2013/sc12-617.pdf
Matt Schultz is a shareholder with the Pensacola law firm of Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty & Proctor. He has tried a number of Engle cases to verdict against the industry, including the Martin case referred to in this article.