FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida – One of the thousands of
cases developed following the end of the Engle progeny suit filed in Florida
against cigarette manufacturers Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds (RJR) has
marked a victory for those claiming the two companies had purposefully hidden
or continued to hide evidence of the addictive power of nicotine.
On Nov. 16, a jury awarded former nurse Mary Howles
$4 million in compensatory damages. She also was awarded $6 million in punitive damages. The payout is to be split between named defendants
R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris. Howles has said she smoked for 34 years and
was diagnosed with cancer and chronic pulmonary obstructive disease (COPD) in
A year earlier, a massive class action lawsuit against
the tobacco industry, Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., had been filed. In
2006, however, another Florida judge ruled that Engle be struck down. Instead,
the judge declared that individual claimants could proceed with their own suits
and could rely on some of the findings from Engle and other litigation cases.
To utilize other suit findings, the court had said that a claimant must
establish a “causal link” tying together the forming of an addiction from deceptive
tobacco marketing that resulted in a smoking-related disease.
Record talked to John Londot, attorney with Greenberg Traurig LLC out of
Tallahasse, about Engle’s effect on the Howles decision. Londot said that while
the practice of turning a class action suit into a bevy of individual
litigations was “a little out of the ordinary,” what he found “very unusual”
was how the court allowed case findings to be shared communally by separate
The splicing of claims associated with Engle and the
ability to use findings from other cases essentially allows individual cases
the resources normally available to only class-action suits.
Londot was asked if the scrapping of Engle had
contributed to the thousands of cases on the state’s docket, and he responded
that it did indeed create “a ready market for lawyers” but did not believe such
a result was intended.
The plaintiff’s suit, Howles v. R.J. Reynolds,
stated that the deceptive advertising and trade practices of RJR, including
Philip Morris, contributed to Howles’ addiction and led to her sickness. The 17th
Circuit Court of southern Florida heard her claims and a jury came down on the
side of Howles.
During the punitive phase of the hearing, lawyers for
Philip Morris and RJR stated that the old days of cover-ups and cooking the
books were over and that the stringent government regulations and oversight of
the industry made such practices impossible. Philip Morris’ attorney, Walter
Cofer, argued that the Howles case was doing nothing more than punishing the
current generation of a company’s employees for the sins of their industry
fathers. Londot told the Florida Record that Cofer’s argument was
In the end, the jury agreed with Howles’ attorney,
Alex Alvarez, in that the two defendants could have done more to ensure public
safety. Alvarez successfully sued the two tobacco giants for $16 million in
punitive damages that he says was necessary in order to make the ruling a
punishment Philip Morris and RJR would feel.