FLORIDA — An appeals court has ruled that an $18.5 million
penalty on R.J. Reynolds (RJR) Tobacco was excessive.
The monetary reward was granted to the daughter of a smoker
who died of lung cancer.
Gwendolyn Odom was awarded $6 million in compensatory
damages and $14 million in punitive damages after the death of her mother,
Juanita Thurston. The second phase of the case was to determine how much Odom
was entitled to for punitive damages.
"When there is a large verdict oftentimes a defendant will
file a motion for remittitur and it is a motion to reduce the verdict,” William
Large from the Florida Justice Reform Institute told the Florida Record. “They
are basically asking the trial judge to rule that the verdict was too
Yet Large said it was not easy to win the favor of a judge
in these cases.
"It is difficult to get a judge to grant a motion for
additur or remittitur. It is not common,” he said, explaining that the additur is when the plaintiff files to have additional damages added to the original
RJR raised questions about Odom’s claims, “because plaintiff
failed to prove that her mother relied on a false or misleading statement made
by RJR after May 5, 1992.”
The tobacco company also claims that comments made by Odom’s lawyer in the
courtroom require a new trial.
The case was divided into two phases, the first was to determine
if Odom was eligible to be part of the Engle class action lawsuit and to see if
RJR could be held legally responsible for Thurston’s death. Part of the issue, according to court documents, was that Odom
was not dependent upon her mother in a meaningful way.
"The case is about remittitur and giving a large economic
reward to an adult who did not live with their mother,” Large said.
In the filing
RJR also argued that, when compared to other awards in similar cases involving
adult children, the award it was ordered to pay was excessive. But the trial court denied the motion.
In this case
the appeals court sent it back to the same circuit judge, "with directions
that the trial court grant a motion for remittitur or order a new trial on
damages only,” Large said.
RJR has been
fighting individual plaintiffs connected to the Engle class action suit
initially filed in 1994. In 2006 a Florida judge declared that those involved
in the class action could move forward as independent plaintiffs. They were
permitted to rely on findings from the Engle and other similar cases to support
their claims. Anyone wanting to use such cases needs to establish a
link between the marketing of tobacco companies and smoking addiction.
During the case the attorney for RJR said that the company had
changed its ways and has “started doing things the right way, acting as a
responsible company in the tobacco industry.”
The company’s vice president of cigarette product development
testified that they had been working on creating safer alternatives to smoking.
There are reportedly thousands of cases like Odom’s waiting for their
day in court.