Sick Smokers Case Argued in Appeals Court

By: Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida
By: Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, May 18, 2011 -

Amid a flood of smoking-related lawsuits, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. on Tuesday challenged a $15.75 million jury award in the case of man who started smoking at age 14 and died of lung cancer in 1995.

The Alachua County case is one of thousands spawned by a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision that required such lawsuits to be heard individually --- but also established critical findings about the health dangers of smoking and misrepresentation by cigarette makers.

R.J. Reynolds argued to a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal that compensatory and punitive damages awarded to the widow of smoker Arthur L. Hall were excessive.

Gregory Katsas, an attorney for the tobacco company, argued in part that $12.5 million in punitive damages should be reduced because Hall knew the dangers of smoking. That knowledge came despite the misrepresentations by the tobacco industry.

“He told family members repeatedly that cigarettes were cancer sticks,’’ Katsas said at one point.

But John Mills, an attorney for the widow, Amanda Jean Hall, said Arthur Hall started smoking in 1953 at a time when the industry marketed cigarettes to teens. He said the tobacco companies did not tell young smokers about the addictiveness or deadliness of cigarettes.

The jury also awarded $5 million in compensatory damages, though that total was ultimately reduced to $3.25 million because Hall was found partly at fault for his death.

Katsas argued the award was far higher than should be allowed, questioning “what is the upper bound on damages for pain and suffering for loss of a loved one?’’

But Mills briefly recounted the effects of Hall’s death on the widow. As an example, he said Amanda Jean Hall sold the family home because she didn’t want to live there without her husband.

“This has been devastating to her,’’ Mills said. “The jury saw her. The jury saw her family.’’

The Hall case is one of the first of the so-called Engle “progeny” cases --- named after a plaintiff in the 2006 Supreme Court decision --- to be heard by an appeals court.

The Supreme Court decision stemmed from a class-action lawsuit that led to a $145 billion punitive-damages award against the tobacco industry. Justices, in a complicated split decision, rejected the punitive damages and also said such cases are too “individualized” to be handled in a class action.

But the court also spelled out important findings that plaintiffs can use in the individual cases. Those findings include establishing that cigarettes cause a wide range of diseases, that nicotine in cigarettes is addictive and that tobacco companies concealed information about the health effects of smoking.

The 1st District Court of Appeal has recently ruled against the tobacco industry in two other cases, including a December ruling that upheld a $28.3 million judgment in an Escambia County case. R.J. Reynolds has asked the Florida Supreme Court to hear an appeal of that case --- an appeal that, if granted, also could have implications for other cases.

In broad strokes, the Hall case and the Escambia County case involved similar circumstances. In the Escambia case, Benny Martin died of lung cancer after decades of smoking that started when he was a teen, according to court records.

It is unclear when the appeals court will rule in the Hall case. But at times Tuesday, judges appeared skeptical of R.J. Reynolds’ arguments.

Judge T. Kent Wetherell, for example, pointed to the Escambia case and another case with a multimillion-dollar verdict in questioning the company’s argument that the Hall compensatory damages are excessive.

“Is that argument still viable in light of what has happened (with the other cases)?’’ Wetherell asked.


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