Court Affirms $620,000 in Damages for Smoker

By William Vogeler, Esq. on January 31, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When it comes to fault in a smoking-death case, there is no mystery.

Tobacco companies and smokers are both blameworthy. But in Florida there was some confusion about liability and damages in Smith v. R.J. Reynolds Company.

A jury said the smoker was partially responsible for her death, and awarded $620,000 against R.J. Reynolds. The U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, but said the company was 100 percent responsible for fraudulently concealing the dangers of smoking.

Intentional Tort

Wanette Smith died of tobacco-related diseases caused by her decades-long history of smoking R.J. Reynold's cigarettes. Her widower James Smith Sr. sued the company for negligence and fraudulent concealment.

A jury found the decedent 45 percent responsible and awarded her widower $600,000 in compensatory damages, plus $20,000 in punitive damages. The defendant argued that the award should be reduced by 45 percent based on the jury's allocation of fault under the state's comparative negligence statute.

The judge denied the request, and the defendant appealed. The Eleventh Circuit said the judge may have confused the jury with his instructions on liability and damages, but it didn't matter.

No Reduction

In Schoeff v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., the Florida Supreme Court ruled there is no reduction of damages for comparative fault in an intentional tort.

"Given the Florida Supreme Court's holding, Defendant's interpretation of this Florida statute cannot prevail," the appeals court said. "Therefore, the district court properly interpreted Florida law in ultimately deciding that, pursuant to that law, Smith's damages could not be reduced, even though the jury found Mrs. Smith to be 45 percent at fault for her injuries."

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