Court won’t review tobacco verdicts — again
For the eighth time in the past seven years, the Supreme Court refused on Monday to be drawn into the ongoing courtroom battle between Florida smokers or their heirs and the major tobacco companies. Without comment, and without any noted dissents, the Court denied review of ten separate new petitions seeking to challenge individual damages verdicts that, together, totaled more than $64 million.
These new cases are part of what might be deemed the third round in the so-called “Engle litigation” in Florida — a phrase that has come to embrace thousands of individual lawsuits that are easier to win against cigarette companies because of the original court-devised plan on how the cases would be tried.
The original Engle case was filed in 1994, by six individuals, making eight separate claims of legal wrongs by the tobacco companies against smokers, ranging from claims that all cigarettes are dangerous because of flawed designs to claims of fraud.
The case was filed originally as a class action on behalf of all smokers who had died from smoking-related diseases, or smokers who had become ill from those diseases. Originally pressed as a nationwide lawsuit, it was reduced first to cover only a class in Florida, and then not as a class action at all. It branched out into thousands of individual trials.
But, in the first case, Florida courts devised a plan under which the original case would develop findings of fact and findings of legal liability, for all smokers and for all types of cigarettes, and those would be binding in later phases. The second round in the plan would decide questions of liability toward three representatives of the class, and a question of punitive damages for the class as a whole. The third round would be the individual cases.
Although the original Engle jury awarded the class $145 billion in punitive damages, that award was set aside, as was the class designation, by the Florida Supreme Court. However, when the third-round individual cases began going to trial, the findings by the original jury were binding.
After the state supreme court’s decision in 2006, more than nine thousand individual claims lawsuits were filed. Over the course of the next seven years, the tobacco companies tried repeatedly but unsuccessfully to get the Supreme Court to review the Engle decision itself, and then the follow-on, or “Engle progeny” lawsuits.
In the latest effort, ten separate petitions were filed, all on the same day, on March 28, and raising basic questions about violations of constitutional due process. The lawyers agreed that two of the cases were the preferred ones for Court review: R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Brown and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Walker. The lawyers in those two cases suggested that the Court grant one or both of the pair, and lawyers in the other cases agreed that those would remain on hold until the two lead cases were decided. The Brown case was from a state appeals court ruling, involving an award of $600,000, while the Walker case was from a federal appeals court decision, involving verdicts of $27,500 and $7,676.
The verdicts in the other case were larger than those, ranging up to $5.5 million in compensation damages and $20 million in punitive damages. Taken together, the compensatory damages in the ten cases totaled $13.4 million and punitive damages in the ten totaled $51.6 million.
Although the winners of those verdicts in each of the ten cases had chosen not to respond to the tobacco company petitions, the Supreme Court asked for a response in each. Then, on Monday, after examining all of the cases in a group, the Court simply denied them, in a series of one-line orders.
The Court did not grant any new cases for review on Monday.
Among other cases denied review was a test case on whether the Court’s 2012 decision, largely forbidding life-without-parole sentences for juveniles who committed murders when they were younger than eighteen, should be made retroactive to reduce the sentences of those whose cases had become final before 2012. In Cunningham v. Pennsylvania, the state supreme court refused to make that decision retroactive for an individual convicted of a 1999 murder, when he was seventeen years old. The Justices denied review of that decision, without comment or noted dissent.