burning cigarette in ash tray

The tobacco industry has once again lost an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court following a major win for plaintiffs, who allege the products are dangerous and responsible for lung disease deaths.

The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Vector Group Ltd.’s Liggett.

Plaintiff product liability attorneys understand this is a huge blow for the industry, as it is continuing to seek limitations on a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision, holding that a jury’s factual findings against the industry in a class action case would serve as a starting point for individual lawsuits.

Makers of cigarettes say that trial judges in Florida are applying the case law too broadly, thereby depriving the companies of the right to present a fair defense.

The Florida ruling decertified the class action lawsuit that had initially been filed by Dr. Howard Engle, a pediatrician who died after years of smoking. That decision meant that former class members had to file their own individual cases – but they were allowed to do so by outright stating that cigarettes caused their illnesses.

In other words, plaintiffs aren’t required to show that cigarette makers knowingly sold defective and dangerous products. That fact is considered established by the earlier litigation. What the individual plaintiffs must prove is that they were addicted and that their subsequent illness and/or death was caused by cigarettes.

That was a big win for tobacco plaintiffs because it’s not difficult to prove that someone who smoked for 30 years and who died of lung cancer was made ill by the cigarettes.

So far in Florida, some 65 tobacco cases have gone to trial, with awards amounting to more than $300 million. Another 8,000 cases are pending.

In R.J. Reynolds v. Clay, a jury found that Reynolds and Liggett were responsible for the death of a woman who died in 2003 of lung disease, after four decades of smoking. They awarded $20 million.

The Supreme Court’s denial of an appeal means that the lower court’s ruling will stand, which essentially paves the way for additional future tobacco litigation by more plaintiffs. That was exactly what the tobacco companies had hoped to avoid because there is much more at stake than just this one case.

This is actually the second time in eight months that the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal by R.J. Reynolds and other tobacco companies. The previous case actually involved the appeal of four different so-called “Engle-progeny” cases, which had a combined award of $53 million.

Still, tobacco companies have been successful in winning federal Engle-progeny cases – which is why they are fighting so hard to get the Supreme Court to hear their argument. Analysts have speculated that if the high court heard just one case, it would likely side with manufacturers, setting the stage for far fewer tobacco suits.

On the other hand, if the court continues to decline the industry’s requests, the industry will continue to take these multi-million dollar hits. As such, there is talk that the industry may work to settle these cases for several billion dollars, in order to simply be done with them.

But for now, it appears they still have a lot of fight left in them. That’s why having a highly-skilled attorney on your side in these cases is so critically important.

The Ferraro Law Firm handles product liability claims nationwide. Call (888) 554-2030 for a free and confidential consultation. Offices in Miami, Washington, D.C., and New York City.

Additional Resources:
Reynolds Rejected by Court on $20 Million Smoker Award, Nov. 26, 2012, By Greg Stohr, Bloomberg News