Florida Appeals Court Orders Retrial in Historic $23B Tobacco Verdict

By George Khoury, Esq. on March 15, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

An ongoing tobacco industry case that had fallen out of the headlines has been making news recently. The Robbins v. RJ Reynolds case may finally get the retrial Reynolds was asking for back in 2014, when the jury awarded over $23 billion to the widow of a deceased smoker and cancer victim.

The Florida court of appeals found that the plaintiff's attorney, in the 2014 trial, crossed the line when he attacked Reynolds in the courtroom by attacking the tobacco industry's character. Essentially, the court reasoned that because these specific types of tobacco cases were part of an earlier class action, there are specific rules that prohibit a plaintiff's attorney from disparaging the tobacco industry.

History of the Historic Case

When the Florida jury awarded the $23+ billion verdict against the cigarette maker, the verdict was hailed as the largest tobacco industry verdict in history. The case was brought by the widow of cigarette smoker that died from lung cancer and sued RJ Reynolds individually, pursuant to the Engle class action.

But, after the jury verdict, the court reduced the punitive damage award to just under $17 million, as everyone involved quickly recognized that $23 billion was clearly excessive. The reduction to $17 million seemed reasonable given that was an amount equal to the non-punitive damages awarded.

However, Reynolds rejected the reduction and demanded a new trial. The court agreed to grant a new trial, but only as to the punitive damages. Reynolds appealed the grant of a new trial only as to the punitive damages as they wanted to retry the whole matter, and over two years later, the appeal actually came down in their favor.

The Engle Class Action

The Engle class action goes all the way back to 1994, when a large class action was filed against the tobacco industry for deceiving the public, and much more, when it comes to the safety of cigarettes and smoking.

Eventually, the Florida Supreme Court found that while the industry was liable for their bad conduct, that class relief wasn't feasible. As such, the high court ordered that individual class members could bring individual claims, but they could rely on the factual allegations of misconduct already proven by the class action case. The cases, like Robbins', which stemmed from this class action, are often referred to as Engle cases.

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