Res Judicata Upheld in 'Novel' R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Case

By William Peacock, Esq. on September 13, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In 1994, a class-action lawsuit was brought against Big Tobacco, including R.J. Reynolds, in Florida state court on behalf of all Florida citizens and resident who have suffered or died as a result of medical conditions caused by their addiction to cigarettes. The trial court, realizing the enormity of the task at hand, split the trial into three phases:

  • Phase I "consisted of a year-long trial to consider the issues of liability and entitlement to punitive damages for the class as a whole;"
  • Phase II was a determination of the liability of the tobacco companies to three
    individual class representatives, compensatory damages for those
    individuals, and a determination of class-wide punitive damages;
  • Phase III would evaluate the individual claims of the remaining class members.

Twelve years later, the case finally reached the Florida Supreme Court, where the judges affirmed the jury's verdict from Phase I, which found that tobacco companies breached their duty of care, manufactured defective cigarettes, concealed information about the harm, and gave those findings res judicata in future proceedings, reports Courthouse News Service.

At the same time, the court decertified the class, holding that class treatment was "not feasible because individualized issues such as legal causation, comparative fault, and damages predominate."

After the ruling, thousands of individual cases were filed in state and federal courts, leading to years of conflicting rulings on the effect of the Florida Supreme Court's odd holding.

This case may finally resolve the res judicata issue, nineteen years after the original suit was filed.

According to the Eleventh Circuit's holding, the Florida Supreme Court approved part, but not all, of the jury's findings. Per the state court, all tobacco companies are liable, regardless of the individual consumer's choice of brand, because they all contained nicotine that was addictive and produced dependence.

On the other hand, the court did not give preclusive effect to the jury's findings of fraud and intentional infliction of emotional distress. These "non-specific findings in favor of the plaintiffs" were "inadequate to allow a subsequent jury to consider individual questions of reliance and legal cause."

The Eleventh Circuit also didn't agree with R.J. Reynolds' argument that res judicata denied the company due process of the law:

"We cannot say that the procedures, however novel, adopted by the Supreme Court of Florida to manage thousands of these suits under Florida law violated the federal right of R.J. Reynolds to due process of law."

As for the individual cases at stake, the opinion also states that the "modest sums" awarded to the two plaintiffs in this appeal ($28,000 for Alvin Walker and less than $8,000 for George Duke) "suggest that the juries fairly considered the questions of damages and fault."

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