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 1995.
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.
The Florida 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 claimants.
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 “factually correct”.
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.