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Brannock Berman & Seider Defends Big Verdict Against R.J. Reynolds

Less than three business days after oral argument, the Fifth District Court of Appeal affirmed a $6 million judgment for a living smoker, rejecting an appeal brought by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company that challenged an evidentiary ruling made at trial.

The plaintiff smoked cigarettes manufactured by R.J. Reynolds for 35 years. Those cigarettes caused her to develop COPD, a chronic condition that will eventually kill her. Based on the Florida Supreme Court’s landmark Engle class-action decision, she sued R.J. Reynolds for negligence and fraud, claiming that R.J. Reynolds intentionally designed the cigarettes to be addictive and concealed the deleterious health effects of smoking from the public.

One of the main legal issues at trial was whether the plaintiff could establish membership in the Engle class. This issue was important because class membership entitled her to the benefit of certain jury findings made in the Engle case. To prove class membership, the plaintiff had to show that her COPD “manifested”—that is, caused symptoms—before a specific date. The plaintiff made this showing, in part, by offering a medical diagnosis from one of her former doctors.

R.J. Reynolds challenged the admission of the diagnosis, claiming that it was hearsay and unduly prejudicial. The trial court overruled R.J. Reynolds’ objections, and the jury awarded $3 million in compensatory damages and $3 million in punitive damages. R.J. Reynolds then sought to undo the jury’s verdict on appeal by challenging the admission of the diagnosis. After extensive written briefing and with the benefit of oral argument, the appellate court agreed with Brannock Berman & Seider’s arguments on behalf of the plaintiff that the trial court committed no reversible error. The appellate court therefore upheld the jury’s award without comment.