A South Florida appeals court Wednesday said R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company should pay $7.875 million to the estate of a man who died of lung cancer — but ordered reconsideration of an additional $30 million in punitive damages.
The ruling by the 4th District Court of Appeal said attorneys for Joan Schoeff, the widow of late smoker James Schoeff, pleaded with a Broward County jury to limit punitive damages to $25 million. But the jury went ahead and awarded $30 million in punitive damages on top of the $7.875 million in compensatory damages.
In a 2-1 decision, the appeals court sent the issue back to circuit court for a new determination of punitive damages.
The Schoeff lawsuit is part of thousands of what are known as “Engle progeny” cases filed in Florida against tobacco companies. Those cases are linked to a 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling that established critical findings about the health dangers of smoking and misrepresentation by cigarette makers.
Courts have grappled with limits on punitive damages in such cases, with $25 million the largest amount of punitive damages upheld so far. The majority of the appeals court Wednesday pointed to the earlier rulings on punitive damages and the pleas from Schoeff’s attorneys to the jury to limit the award to $25 million.
“Plaintiff’s counsel begged the jury not to award her more than $25 million in punitive damages and the trial court found that there was ‘no logical or sound reason for the jury to have exceeded the award sought by counsel for plaintiff,’ ”said Wednesday’s majority opinion, written by Judge Dorian Damoorgian and joined by Judge Melanie May.
But Judge Carole Taylor dissented, saying the $30 million amount should have been upheld and that Schoeff’s attorneys likely asked to limit the amount to $25 million because it would be “safe” from a later court reversal.
“The jury’s award was properly based on the evidence presented and, as the trial court determined, it was not excessive under Florida law or federal due process,” Taylor wrote. “As our court has recognized in other Engle progeny cases, the purpose of punitive damages is to punish a defendant’s past wrongful conduct and deter future misconduct. Here, the record is replete with evidence of the tobacco company’s continued attempts to discredit scientific research revealing the potential harm caused by its products, its costly campaign to mislead the public about the hazards of smoking, and its manipulation of nicotine levels in cigarettes to make them even more addictive.”
Court documents indicate James Schoeff died in 1995 after 45 years of marriage. The jury set the overall amount of compensatory damages at $10.5 million, but the award was reduced to $7.875 million because James Schoeff was found to be 25 percent at fault for the lung cancer and death.
In a brief filed last year in the appeals court, R.J. Reynolds argued that the amounts awarded in the case were excessive, pointing to a “runaway verdict.”