TALLAHASSEE — In what a dissenting justice called a “fundamental shift,” the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday issued a ruling that likely will make things harder for many plaintiffs suing tobacco companies over smoking-related illnesses.
The 6-1 ruling dealt with plaintiffs in a group of cases — known as “Engle progeny” cases — and with claims that tobacco companies fraudulently concealed or conspired to conceal information about the health effects and addictiveness of smoking.
Siding with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., the Supreme Court said plaintiffs must show that smokers relied on misleading information from cigarette makers to prevail on the claims.
“(What) matters for purposes of reliance is that the plaintiff be able to prove a causal connection running from an Engle defendant’s statement or statements, to the plaintiff’s beliefs about the health effects or addictiveness of smoking cigarettes, to the plaintiff’s injury,” said the 25-page majority opinion, written by Justice Carlos Muniz and joined by Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justices Ricky Polston, Alan Lawson, John Couriel and Jamie Grosshans. “The statements relied upon must have been capable of causing the plaintiff to form a false belief about the health effects or addictiveness of smoking cigarettes.”
But Justice Jorge Labarga, in a 14-page dissent, said the majority opinion disturbs “settled law regarding Engle progeny litigation and injects uncertainty into the remaining Engle progeny cases.” He called it a “fundamental shift in this court’s jurisprudence.”
“Until today, it was settled law in Florida that a jury in an Engle progeny case was permitted to infer reliance based upon evidence of the smoker’s own history coupled with the tobacco industry’s pervasive advertising and creation of a false controversy about the risks of smoking, without the necessity of proving that the smoker relied on any specific statement by tobacco companies,” Labarga wrote.
The ruling came in a case involving John C. Price, who started smoking at age 12 and died at age 74 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. A Duval County jury awarded $6.4 million in compensatory damages to Price’s estate in an Engle progeny case against R.J. Reynolds.
But a panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal in 2019 overturned that verdict and ordered a new trial, agreeing with R.J. Reynolds’ position that the jury should have been instructed to find that Price relied to his “detriment” on a statement that concealed or omitted information.
The Supreme Court decided to take up the case, at least in part because the 1st District Court of Appeal’s decision conflicted with rulings by three other district courts of appeal in Engle progeny cases.
A 2006 Supreme Court ruling set the stage for smokers or their surviving family members to file Engle progeny cases.
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That ruling, an outgrowth of an unsuccessful class-action lawsuit, established critical findings about issues such as the dangers of smoking and misrepresentation by cigarette makers. It also provided a window for individual class members to file lawsuits against tobacco companies and allowed them to use the findings in those cases.
Smokers or their surviving family members filed roughly 8,000 cases, with many still tied up in the courts.
In his dissent Thursday, Labarga wrote that the underlying findings in the Engle litigation “conclusively established that the tobacco companies agreed to conceal, omit, and misinterpret information regarding the health effects of cigarettes or their addictive nature, with the intention that smokers and the public would rely on this information to their detriment.” He added that requiring proof that smokers relied on tobacco company statements had been “soundly rejected by a majority of Florida appellate courts.”
But Muniz wrote that showing reliance is key in fraud cases.
“In the common law of fraud, reliance is what establishes the necessary connection between a fraudulent representation and the plaintiff’s injury,” he wrote. “Put differently, regardless of the form of the defendant’s fraudulent conduct, reliance is an indispensable aspect of proving causation in a fraud claim.”
By Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida