R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. has received another legal setback in a long list of “Engle” jury verdicts in Florida.
A Palm Beach County jury awarded $6 million in compensatory damages and $14 million in punitive damages Monday to plaintiff Gwendolyn Odom, according to Law360.com.
Odom is the daughter of Juanita Thurston, who died of lung cancer in 1993 at age 58. She smoked several cigarette brands manufactured by Reynolds, including Camel, as well as brands of other manufacturers, according to Odom’s complaint.
Reynolds spokesman Bryan Hatchell said the company’s policy is that it does not comment on existing litigation.
The Engle cases have been scrutinized since they sprang from a decision in 2006 by the Florida Supreme Court that decertified a class-action lawsuit initially filed by Howard Engle. That ruling allowed former class members to file individual lawsuits stating that cigarettes caused their respective illnesses.
About 8,000 plaintiffs have cases pending in Florida courts. Odom filed her lawsuit in 2008.
In most Engle cases, the jury places a percentage of the blame for the smoker’s death on the individual and a percentage on the manufacturer. In this case, the jury found Thurston was 25 percent responsible, which lowered compensatory damages to $4.5 million.
Reynolds’ attorneys have argued that jury verdicts should be overturned because Florida judges aren’t making plaintiffs prove cigarette makers knowingly sold dangerous and defective products, as well as having to identify individual cigarette brands.
People suing cigarette companies only have to prove addiction and that their illnesses, or deaths of family members, were caused by cigarettes.
Of the 116 Engle cases that have gone to trial and reached a verdict, 77 have been for plaintiffs and 39 for defendants, according to Ed Sweda, a senior lawyer for the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University School of Law.
In October, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal of tobacco manufacturers, including Reynolds, of a multimillion-dollar Engle jury award. It was the third time since 2012 that the High Court make that decision.
That meant in those four cases, the tobacco manufacturers had no further legal recourse and were required to pay the award. Reynolds said in its first-quarter earnings report that it had spent $69 million on Engle cases.
The sheer number of Engle plaintiffs could compel the Big 3 manufacturers to agree to a Master Settlement Agreement-type arrangement as more jury awards reach the payment stage, said Mark Gottlieb, president of the Tobacco Products Liability Project.
The nation’s largest manufacturers agreed in 1998 to pay $206 billion over 25 years to settle public-health lawsuits filed by attorneys general in 46 states, including North Carolina.
In October, Vector Group Ltd. and its Liggett Group tobacco subsidiary reached a settlement in which it will pay a combined $110 million to more than 4,900 Engle plaintiffs in exchange for the dismissals of their claims. It is paying $61 million in a lump sum and $49 million over a 15-year period.
“The Engle progeny cases have been the biggest litigation overhang on our company in the last decade, and this settlement substantially reduces the on-going litigation risks, as well as related legal fees and expenses, of these cases,” Bennett LeBow, Vector’s chairman, said in a statement.
Stephen Pope, managing partner for Spotlight Ideas in London, said the remaining tobacco manufacturers’ Engle exposure could be closer to $2 trillion nationally.