In what a dissenting justice called a “fundamental shift,” the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday issued a ruling that likely will make it harder for many plaintiffs suing tobacco companies about smoking-related illnesses.

$6 Million In Punitive Damages Tossed Out In Florida Tobacco Lawsuit

In a win for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., a state appeals court Wednesday rejected a $6 million punitive-damages award in a case involving a smoking-related illness.

In a win for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., a state appeals court Wednesday rejected a $6 million punitive-damages award in a case involving a smoking-related illness.

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal said a Gadsden County judge gave improper jury instructions about punitive damages. Richard and Margaret Harris filed the lawsuit against R.J. Reynolds, with the case continuing as a wrongful-death claim after Richard Harris died in 2016, according to Wednesday’s ruling.

The lawsuit was one of thousands of cases filed against tobacco companies after a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision established critical findings about issues such as the dangers of smoking and misrepresentation by cigarette makers. Those lawsuits are known as “Engle progeny” cases.

A jury awarded $4 million in compensatory damages and $6 million in punitive damages to Harris’ estate. But Wednesday’s ruling said the circuit judge improperly instructed the jury that it could consider the Engle findings when deciding whether to award punitive damages.

“There simply is no way to determine whether the jury based its punitive entitlement determination solely on independent evidence of R.J. Reynolds’ conduct or whether it relied in part on the Engle findings,” said the ruling, written by Judge Rachel Nordby and joined by Judges Joseph Lewis and Robert Long. “The trial court affirmatively instructed the jury that it could consider the findings for purposes of punitive damages.”

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