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Appeals Court Rejects Huge Award in Tobacco Death Case

April 8, 2012 - 6:00pm

An appeals court Monday rejected a North Florida jury's call for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. to pay $79.2 million to the daughter of a dead smoker -- overturning what could have been the largest verdict in a barrage of lawsuits against cigarette makers

The 1st District Court of Appeal sent the case back to Levy County Circuit Court to determine a reduced amount of damages in the 1996 lung-cancer death of James Cayce Horner.

The three-judge panel, however, ruled against R.J. Reynolds on other issues that could have shielded it from liability. The case is one of thousands stemming from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision that established critical findings about the health dangers of smoking and past misrepresentation by the tobacco industry.

Horner started smoking as a teen in the 1930s, using brands such as Pall Mall, Camel and Lucky Strike. In a 2010 verdict, his daughter, Dianne Webb, was awarded $7.2 million in compensatory damages and $72 million in punitive damages.

The Tallahassee-based appeals court, however, concluded that the compensatory damages, which can be based on such things as loss of companionship and mental pain and suffering, were excessive. The amount of punitive damages is tied to the amount of compensatory damages, so the appeals court overturned the entire award.

In its ruling, the court said it could not find any other cases in which adult offspring received such a large amount of compensatory damages in the wrongful death of a parent. It acknowledged a close relationship between Horner and Webb, including Horner taking care of a disabled granddaughter, but indicated that did not justify the damage amount.

"The amount of compensatory damages suggests an award that is the product of passion, an emotional response to testimony regarding difficulties Ms. Webb and her father faced and overcame before cancer befell him, rather than evidence of his illness, subsequent death and the non-economic consequences of the death itself,'' the ruling said.

R.J. Reynolds issued a statement echoing the court's reasoning on the damages issues.

"This decision demonstrates that there are limits to the amounts a Florida jury can award for pain and suffering and that trial courts are obligated to exclude evidence and arguments that are meant to inflame the jury, particularly when they bear no relationship to the defendant's products,'' company vice president and assistant general counsel Jeff Raborn said in the statement.

The ruling was the second time in less than two months that the 1st DCA ordered the reduction of a huge judgment against R.J. Reynolds. In February, it found that a $40.8 million punitive-damage award in the death of an Ocala man was excessive -- though it upheld $5.5 million in compensatory damages for the man's widow.

Tallahassee attorney Jim Gustafson, who represents Webb, said he expected the $72 million in punitive damages to be reduced after the February ruling. He said he wouldn't second-guess the appeals court, though he was disappointed it didn't see the compensatory damages issues like the Levy County judge and jury did.

Gustafson, however, said he was pleased that the appeals court ruled against R.J. Reynolds on the series of other issues that could have prevented it from being held liable, such as a statute-of-limitations issue. Tobacco companies have raised similar arguments in other cases stemming from the 2006 Supreme Court ruling -- which are known as "Engle progeny" cases.

Gustafson is part of a firm, Searcy, Denney, Scarola, Barnhart & Shipley, that has filed hundreds of the cases against tobacco companies. He said the court's rulings Monday on the liability issues were a "door-slamming loss to R.J. Reynolds and the rest of them."

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