The United States Supreme Court issued a victory for Florida's Engle tobacco plaintiffs on Monday, March 26, 2012 when it declined certiorari review of three appeals brought by the RJReynolds Tobacco giant. Reynolds, like the other major tobacco companies, claims that its due process rights are violated by the Engle class action findings. Reynolds' gripe centers on the class action jury's findings that cigarettes are a defective product, that the tobacco companies were negligent in manufacturing and marketing cigarettes, and that the tobacco industry engaged in a conspiracy to defraud the American people regarding the health effects of smoking cigarettes. No surprise that Reynolds is upset with these findings. Unfortunately for Reynolds, the evidence is damning and overwhelming on each of these points.
Reynolds argues that the class action jury's findings violate due process. The Florida Supreme Court, in 2006, determined that the jury's findings would be binding across the class (a normal and expected result in a class action). The Court broke the class up for the purpose of individual compensatory and punitive damages assessments. Plaintiffs must prove they are members of the Engle class and, if they are, they must prove the amount of their damages which includes proof of comparative fault (how much of the blame goes to the cigarette manufacturer and how much goes to the plaintiff?). Reynolds argues that the class action findings should be disregarded and that plaintiffs must show the specific act of negligence, and the specific product defect for each cigarette and each plaintiff. They also argue that the plaintiff should have to prove the conspiracy in each individual case and prove how the conspiracy directly impacted the plaintiff. In reality, despite the Engle findings, juries are marched through virtually all the evidence on conspiracy, product defect, and negligence in the quest to determine comparative fault and entitlement to punitive damages. The trials take weeks. There is abundant due process in store for any tobacco defendant seeking a jury trial in an Engle case. Cases are won and lost, with no clear pattern, other than a decision based on the individual merits of each case. Due process appears to be plentiful and functional.
Reynolds seeks to undo class action law and nullify the concept of a class action with regard to cigarette companies altogether.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to get involved. The Florida Supreme Court has already spoken, although it may speak again, presumably to say that it meant what it said the first time in 2006.
However you look at, Monday, March 26, 2012 was a good day for Florida's Engle class of addicted smokers. There are over 6,000 pending Engle claims, but the cigarette industry refuses to concede the point. RJReynolds and its co-conspirators (Phillip Morris, Liggett, Lorillard, etc.) are hell bent on clogging Florida's court system with an endless array of jury trials, on which no expense is spared, to protect their reputation. And what is that reputation? Producing a product designed to addict and, in turn, to kill. Over 450,000 Americans die each year due to cigarette smoke.
Judgment day has come and gone for several dozen Engle plaintiffs. Their time to collect on judgments, with interest, is near. For the rest whose trials have not yet occurred, due process awaits.