Second Circuit Affirms a $28 Million Verdict Against Tobacco Company
By Sean Lally, Staff Writer
In early July, after over a decade of court proceedings, the Second Circuit US Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s decision to grant $28 million to Barbara Izzarelli in a lawsuit against RJ Reynolds, the manufacturer of Salem King cigarettes. Izzarelli started smoking Salems when she was 12 and for 25 years she was quite addicted, consuming, on average, two packs a day. In 1996, doctors informed Izzarelli that she had laryngeal cancer, after which she underwent a laryngectomy, whereby doctors removed her larynx. Doctors then performed what is known as a tracheotomy, meaning she now speaks and breathes via a hole in her throat. Following these tumultuous events, she sued RJ Reynolds in 1999. After ten years of a jury trial, she was awarded nearly $7.9 million.
The District Court
Following the jury’s decision, the cigarette company submitted a motion for a new trial and a motion for judgement as a matter of law because of an alleged lack of sufficient evidence and instructions for members of the jury. Judge Stefan R. Underhill, of the US District Court in Connecticut, denied the motion because he felt RJ Reynolds relied on an “inaccurate description of the trial record.” Additionally, in a separate order, Underhill determined the amount of punitive damages to be $3.9 million. With an additional $16 million in “offer-of-judgement interest”, the total award came to approximately $28 million.
First Appeal to Second Circuit
RJ Reynolds, unwilling to give up on the case, appealed the District Court’s decision to the Second Circuit in 2013, arguing that an aspect of Connecticut law (section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts) rendered the lawsuit null and void. Essentially, RJ Reynolds contended that a consumer could not pursue a suit without sufficient evidence showing the company to have tampered with the product in question. Because the question before the court pertained to state law, the three-judge panel of the Appeals Court sent the case to the Connecticut Supreme Court.
State Supreme Court Decision
In short, the Connecticut Supreme Court responded to the question with a simple “no.” The court argued that accepting the defendant’s interpretation would immunize “a manufacturer from liability for manipulating the inherently dangerous properties of its product to pose a greater risk of danger to the consumer.“ Thus, the case was sent back to the Second Circuit.
Back to the Second Circuit
In light of the Supreme Court’s decision, mentioned above – and another decision from the same court (Bifolck v. Philip Morris, Inc.) – the Second Circuit disagreed with the defendant’s claim that the lawsuit was untenable and affirmed the lower court’s decision regarding the liability of RJ Reynolds. The Appeals Court also accepted arguments from the plaintiff suggesting that the District Court’s determination of the punitive damages was not sufficient. District Judge Underhill set certain limitations on the punitive award due to a legal interpretation rendered moot by the Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision in Bifolck. Thus, the Second Circuit partially vacated Underhill’s decision and remanded for a reconsideration of punitive damages.
The court’s decision marks a major victory for the plaintiff, as she could end up with even more than the current award. As David Golub, Izzarelli’s attorney, told the Connecticut Law Tribune, “It's been seven years since the verdict and six years since then that the appeal has been pending, but the decision is a strong decision, and it's really gratifying."
Additionally, this case has forced the State Supreme Court to make some clarifying decisions regarding product liability law in Connecticut. In a press release on Golub’s site, Dr. K. Michael Cummings said the following: “This unanimous verdict in Connecticut, with its substantial damages and punitive damages award, should send shivers down the tobacco companies’ CEO’s spines.” Consumer advocates hope Dr. Cummings is right.