The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals gave smokers a big win last month. The court held that federal law does not bar smokers from using the landmark Engle tobacco class action’s jury findings to establish strict liability and negligence claims. The appeals court, sitting en banc, reversed an earlier panel ruling that had said Earl Graham, whose wife died of smoking-related lung cancer and was part of the original Engle class, could not rely on the jury’s conclusions in Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., including that smoking causes certain diseases and that tobacco companies hid smoking’s dangers.
The original Engle jury came back with a $145 billion verdict against tobacco companies on behalf of a class of about 700,000 Floridians. The Florida Supreme Court overturned that decision in 2006 and decertified the class, but allowed class members to bring individual suits using the jury’s findings.
In Graham’s suit against the tobacco companies, a federal district judge decided that Graham could rely on the Engle findings for his claims. A jury came back with a $2.75 million award against R.J. Reynolds that was later reduced to $550,000, and a $275,000 award against Philip Morris, taking into account that Graham’s wife was 70 percent at fault, according to court documents. But an Eleventh Circuit panel in April 2015 found that the claims wrongly imposed a duty on all cigarette makers that they breached every time they put a cigarette on the market. That result was inconsistent with Congress’ aim to give consumers the right to choose whether to smoke, the panel said. The panel’s ruling was a significant win for tobacco companies, as it was the only court thus far to bar Plaintiffs from using Engle findings to support their claims. But the Eleventh Circuit decided in January 2016 to rehear the case at Graham’s request. The result was a huge win for smokers and their families.
Graham is represented by Elizabeth J. Cabraser, Robert J. Nelson, Jordan Elias, Sarah R. London, Jerome Mayer-Cantu and Kenneth S. Byrd of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP, Norwood S. Wilner, Janna M. Blasingame and Richard J. Lantinberg of The Wilner Firm PA, and Samuel Issacharoff of New York University. The case is Graham v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. et al., (case number 13-14590) in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
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