The tobacco company R.J. Reynolds came before the Florida Supreme Court Thursday in two back-to-back liability cases. Even though the cases raise different questions, they both spring from a class action suit begun in mid-nineties.
The two tobacco cases stem from the so-called Engle case. Engle started as a class action lawsuit, and the courts eventually did rule against the tobacco companies. But to award damages, the state Supreme Court decided to split the class up, leading to thousands of individual cases like the two heard Thursday.
“Engle is an imperfect case,” attorney Bard Rockenbach says before the justices. “We deal with a lot of issues that aren’t in other cases, and this is one of them: people didn’t have good knowledge at the time.”
Rockenbach is representing the Ciccone family. In their case, the tobacco company R.J. Reynolds argues George Ciccone should not be allowed to bring an Engle case because he wasn’t officially diagnosed with a smoking related illness until after a court-determined cutoff date.
Mr. Ciccone passed away in 2002.
Ciccone’s wife Pamela has continued his case because she says his symptoms manifested themselves before the cutoff date. Rockenbach argues the tobacco companies’ concerted denial of any connection between smoking and disease was a primary factor in Mr. Ciccone not receiving diagnosis of a smoking related illness.
The other case before the Court asks whether Lucille Soffer can demand punitive damages for the death of her husband. R.J. Reynolds argues Soffer can’t because the company didn’t think punitive damages were part of the case. But Soffer’s attorney John Mills quickly dismisses this.
“One possible thing is what he just suggested to you, which is absolutely absurd—that they would have tried harder, they would have taken this case more seriously if they knew punitive damages were at issue on all counts. That’s ridiculous. They thought there were 800,000 class members,” Mills says.
Since breaking up the class for the purpose of assigning culpability and determining awards, only about 8,000 class members have stepped forward to pursue cases.