$4.3M Engle Tobacco Verdict Reversed Over Alcohol Evidence

By William Peacock, Esq. on October 17, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

We've talked before about the ongoing "Engle-progeny" cases in Florida: The state supreme court decertified the Engle class but gave res judicata effect to a jury's determinations on causation, negligence, breach of warranty, concealment, and conspiracy findings. The individual members of the class would then have to file their own claims to determine "individual issues such as legal causation, comparative fault, and damages." The Eleventh Circuit upheld this "novel" approach last year.

Thelma Aycock brought this suit on behalf of her late husband, Richard Aycock, a chain smoker with a bit of a drinking problem. A jury found R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company 72.5 percent at fault, leading to a net award of $4.28 million. Reynolds appealed, arguing that a denied continuance cost it its choice of counsel and more importantly, that exclusion of evidence of Richard's alcoholism was improper.

The Eleventh Circuit didn't touch the counsel issue, reversing the verdict on the evidentiary issue alone.

Burden Shifted Improperly

In Florida, the plaintiff has to prove the four elements of negligence, including causation, by a "more likely than not" standard. Conversely, a defendant is allowed to present evidence of possible alternative causes.

That meant it was on Thelma to show that Richard's death was, more likely than not, caused by his cigarette addiction.

"Not only did the district court apply the wrong legal standard in requiring that the testimony offered by Reynolds regarding alternative causes be to a reasonable medical certainty, rather than the correct 'more likely than not' standard," Sixth Circuit Judge Eugene E. Siler, sitting by designation, wrote. "It also placed the burden of proof as to causation on the wrong party."

Alcohol Evidence Excluded Improperly

Alcohol evidence wasn't excluded entirely, but it was limited to the issue of damages, not causation. This limitation "hindered Reynolds' defense," according to the Eleventh Circuit's holding.

Reynolds wanted to use the alcohol evidence to show that something else might have caused his death: There was no biopsy done (which would have confirmed the diagnosis of lung cancer metastasized to his brain) after the family declined to continue treatment. Additionally, Reynolds had several experts lined up to say that the precise cause of death could not be determined, and that alcohol could have been a factor. The court notes in passing, near the end of its opinion, that the autopsy also showed cirrhosis of the liver.

The Eleventh Circuit also noted that alcohol could have played in to the comparative fault calculation, one that was done by the jury to a tenth of a point (72.5 percent to 27.5 percent). Not only could alcohol have been relevant to causation, but as an expert testified in Duke v. R.J. Reynolds and the Surgeon General has recognized, "alcohol consumption has a negative effect on smoking cessation."

And finally, alcohol abuse was relevant to the issue of damages: It affected his relationship with his family, as well as his work and ability to provide. When Thelma denied on the stand that it affected their marriage, Reynolds was unable to rebut her testimony with her prior testimony in depositions.

In short, alcohol abuse evidence was a big part of Reynolds' case. After reweighing the Rule 403 probative-prejudice test, the Eleventh Circuit held that the evidence was highly probative with nearly no chance of being prejudicial.

Related Resources:

Copied to clipboard