Supreme Court Says No to Tobacco Companies’ Appeal
By Sean Lally, Staff Writer
In May of 2017, the Eleventh Circuit issued a ruling that could greatly affect the future of Engle progeny lawsuits, which, for the past 10 years, have been making their way through the courts, one after the other. Unable to pursue a class-action lawsuit – thanks to a ruling from the Florida Supreme Court – plaintiffs in Engle progeny cases have had to argue based solely on the merits of their particular situations. But after the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling, thousands of remaining plaintiffs will now be able to use previous lawsuits as evidence, relieving some of the pressure to reproduce the same arguments over and over again.
R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Philip Morris USA, both defendants in the lawsuit ruled on by the Eleventh Circuit, filed a petition for writ of certiorari at the Supreme Court. The petition, however, failed to receive the four necessary votes from Justices, who denied to hear the case. The case in question involved Faye Graham and her deceased husband. Ms. Graham and her husband both suffered after smoking the companies’ cigarettes. The jury awarded the deceased Mr. Graham $825,000, while finding Ms. Graham 70 percent at-fault.
Motives for Cert Petition
On average, in the 300 Engle progeny suits that have occurred over the past 10 years, plaintiffs have been awarded anywhere between $1 million and $5 million – making the Grahams’ award relatively low. The cigarette manufacturers were less worried about the financial losses and more worried about the potential losses in future cases.
Tobacco Companies’ Argument
“While the class put on evidence of myriad purported negligent acts and defects, the jury never identified what act it found negligent or what defect it found, making it impossible to tell what conduct and which cigarettes, over what time frame, it had condemned,” they said, continuing, “If the Engle jury’s findings are deemed to establish that all cigarettes are inherently defective, are claims based on those findings preempted by the many federal statutes that manifested Congress’ intent that cigarettes continue to be lawfully sold in the United States?”
This whole process has been drawn out after the Florida Supreme Court decided in 2006 to decertify the class-action lawsuit filed by Howard Engle, the first petitioner and namesake of the Engle progeny cases. The court found that each person suffered individually thanks to cigarettes and thus must pursue compensation separately.
Eleventh Circuit Disagrees
The Eleventh Circuit wrote a 284-page opinion arguing against the tobacco companies’ claims that allowing previous rulings as evidence would be tantamount to a violation of due process and that jury findings are preempted by federal statutes. The opinion follows suit with a previous decision from a three-judge panel of the same court, which vacated a 2015 ruling. According to the 2015 ruling, allowing evidence from previous trials to be used in current and future cases would amount to an indirect ban on cigarettes.
Tobacco companies want to minimize their potential liability in all of these cases and this ruling will make it harder. They’ve already agreed to settle over 400 cases that were waiting to be heard in Florida courtrooms, with RJ Reynolds and Phillip Morris both offering $42.5 million. A third company, Lorillard, has offered $15 million toward the same settlement agreement.