Florida Supreme Court To Weigh Punitive Damages Against R.J. Reynolds
A smoker's estate went to the high court after the 5th District Court of Appeal overturned a decision by an Orange County jury to award $16 million, calling the amount “excessive.”
The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday agreed to take up a potentially far-reaching case about whether R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. could be forced to pay $16 million in punitive damages to the family of a woman who died at age 52 of lung cancer.
The estate of Lois Stucky went to the state Supreme Court after the 5th District Court of Appeal in October overturned a decision by an Orange County jury to award $16 million, calling the amount “excessive.”
The appeals court ruling centered on the fact that the jury awarded only $300,000 in compensatory damages to Stucky’s adult children --- an amount that was subsequently reduced to $150,000 --- but awarded the vastly larger amount of punitive damages.
Courts weigh punitive-damage awards based on a relationship to compensatory damages, which are generally related to compensating people for economic losses or injuries. But legal battles arise about what the proper relationship should be --- with a panel of the 5th District Court of Appeal acknowledging in the Stucky case the difficulty of making such a determination.
“Like pornography, which is not susceptible of easy definition but is identifiable upon viewing, a punitive damages award of 106.7 (or 53.3) times the compensatory award is, in our mind, excessive and thus is unsustainable under state law,” the panel said in its October ruling, referring to the relationship between the $16 million punitive-damages award and $150,000 or $300,000 in compensatory damages.
But in a March brief asking the Supreme Court to take up the dispute, the Stucky estate’s attorneys said large punitive-damage awards have been upheld in other lawsuits against tobacco companies.
The estate’s attorneys wrote that the appeals court ruling “implicates troubling problems of equal treatment” because some plaintiffs could receive larger punitive-damage awards than others based on issues such as whether they are wealthier and, as a result, likely to receive larger compensatory-damage awards.
“What possible justification is there for requiring such disparate treatment for the same or similar misconduct?” the brief said. “Especially in a case like this where the defendant (R.J. Reynolds) had not targeted the plaintiff specifically and simply engaged in an egregious course of conduct threatening to kill millions of people regardless of their circumstances, why can a jury not determine that killing one human warrants the same punishment as killing another?”
But attorneys for R.J. Reynolds said in a May brief that the Supreme Court should not take up the case and, in effect, let the appeals-court decision stand. The brief said a “triple-digit ratio can hardly pass muster” when comparing the punitive-damages and compensatory-damages awards.
“Wherever the line of permissibility lies, this case falls far beyond it,” the R.J. Reynolds attorneys wrote.
As an indication of the potential implications of the case, the appeals court took a step known as certifying a question of “great public importance” to urge the Supreme Court to consider the issues. The Supreme Court issued a two-page order Thursday saying it would take up the case.
Stucky started smoking R.J. Reynolds cigarettes at age 17 and died of lung cancer 13 months after her diagnosis, the appeals court ruling said.
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