Florida Jury Awards $26.6 Million to Smoker’s Widow

March 25, 2010

A Florida jury ordered R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris Wednesday to pay $26.6 million to the widow of a longtime smoker who died of lung cancer, the latest verdict against cigarette makers in the “Engle progeny” lawsuits.

The Broward County Circuit Court jury in Fort Lauderdale issued the verdict in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Robin Cohen, whose husband Nathan died of a smoking-related illness in 1994 at age 68.

The jury awarded $10 million in compensatory damages and divided the blame for Nathan Cohen’s death equally at one-third for Altria Group unit Philip Morris, one third for Reynolds American unit R.J. Reynolds and one-third for Cohen himself.

The panel also awarded $20 million in punitive damages, or $10 million for each of the two cigarette companies. That puts the total at $26.6 million, or $13.3 million for each company, if the verdict is upheld on appeal.

Philip Morris said it would appeal on grounds that the trial court improperly eliminated most of the plaintiff’s burden of proof.

Maura Payne, a spokeswoman for R.J. Reynolds, said it too intended to appeal. “We’re disappointed in the verdict,” said Payne.

The “Engle progeny” cases stem from Engle versus R.J. Reynolds, a landmark class-action lawsuit filed against cigarette makers in 1994. In 2000, a Florida jury found that cigarettes cause lung cancer and other illness, and ordered the tobacco companies to pay a record $145 billion in punitive damages to sick smokers.

In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court threw out the award and decertified the original class of about 700,000 Florida smokers but said individual cases could proceed. Thousands of such cases are working their way through the courts.

Jury verdicts have been reached in 13 Engle progeny cases in the last 13 months, and plaintiffs have won 11 of them, counting the Cohen case, said Edward Sweda, a senior attorney for the anti-smoking Tobacco Products Liability Project.

“We anticipate even more victories for plaintiffs in these Florida lawsuits in the coming weeks and months,” Sweda said.

Philip Morris spokesman Murray Garnick said all of the cases that have gone to trial since the Florida Supreme Court’s decision raise similar constitutional issues because the trial courts have allowed the findings of an earlier jury to excuse plaintiffs from proving their claims.

“We will seek further review of this verdict because this jury was allowed to rely on findings by a prior jury that are totally unrelated to the individual smoker in this case in violation of Florida law and due process,” Garnick said in a prepared statement.

(Reporting by Jane Sutton, editing by Matthew Lewis)

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