As cigarette makers continue facing a barrage of lawsuits in Florida, state Supreme Court justices this week rejected arguments by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company that federal law should shield it from liability.
Ruling in a Broward County case that involved the lung-cancer death of a smoker, the Supreme Court ruled that federal law does not prevent strict-liability and negligence claims in what are known as "Engle progeny" lawsuits in Florida.
Thousands of such lawsuits have been filed and are linked to a 2006 Supreme Court ruling that established critical findings about the health dangers of smoking and misrepresentation by cigarette makers.
In Thursday's ruling, the Supreme Court rejected R.J. Reynolds' contention that strict-liability and negligence claims are "preempted" by a federal law.
"Reynolds contends that Congress, through decades of legislation, has established its intention to regulate cigarettes while foreclosing their removal from the market, and that any state law that conflicts with this objective is implicitly preempted," the Supreme Court opinion said. "Reynolds argues that imposing tort liability for the sale of ordinary cigarettes amounts to a ban, and therefore such claims are preempted."
But in ruling for the estate of late smoker Phil Marotta, the Supreme Court disagreed with the cigarette maker's argument.
"While Congress did expressly preempt state and local regulations pertaining to the labeling and advertising of cigarettes, there is no indication that Congress had a 'clear and manifest purpose' to insulate the tobacco industry from state tort liability," said the 33-page opinion, written by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga. "Strict liability and negligence claims, such as those brought by Marotta under Engle, do not interfere with the regulation of advertising and promotion of cigarettes and, therefore, do not clearly conflict with congressional objectives."
The opinion was fully joined by justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince. Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston agreed with the result but did not sign on to the opinion. Justice Alan Lawson, who joined the court Dec. 31, did not take part.
A jury ruled in favor of Marotta's estate and awarded compensatory damages of $6 million. The amount R.J. Reynolds would be required to pay, however, was reduced to $3.48 million because the jury said Marotta was 42 percent at fault.
As part of Thursday's ruling, the Supreme Court also overturned a lower-court decision that said the estate could not pursue punitive damages.