By Jon Hood
ConsumerAffairs.com


The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued a significant tobacco-related decision on Thursday, ruling that jury findings from a previous tobacco lawsuit can be applied to new cases, but only if the plaintiffs prove that they apply.

The ruling concerned factual findings from Engle v. RJ Reynolds, a Florida class action brought on behalf of consumers who smoked before warning labels were required on cigarette packages. In that case, the jury concluded that the cigarettes smoked by the plaintiffs were defective and addictive, and that the manufacturer failed to properly disclose the danger of smoking to consumers.

The Florida Supreme Court eventually decertified the Engle class but allowed individual plaintiffs to file suit by January 2008. As a result, nearly 4,000 such cases are now working their way through Florida federal courts.

In its decision, the court said that the findings must be given the same preclusive effect in this federal court case that they would be given if the case were in state court.

However, the court also said that the plaintiffs are charged with a considerable task -- to show with reasonable certainty that facts pertinent to their case were actually decided by the Engle jury. The nuanced ruling allowed both sides to spin the decision to their advantage.

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The plaintiffs pointed out that the court left open the ability to use prior findings in new cases, provided that the plaintiffs meet the requirements set forth in the ruling. <

We believe that this is a victory for the thousands of injured smokers who have been denied their day in court for over a decade, said Woody Wilner, an attorney for the plaintiffs, in a news release.

Samuel Issacharoff, another of the plaintiffs' attorneys, branded himself delighted, and pointed out that the holding frees up thousands of cases, on hold pending the decision, to proceed.

Tobacco companies: No automatic and unlimited right to findings

But the tobacco companies said that the ruling created a steep hill for plaintiffs to climb. Altria Client Services Senior Vice President Murray Garnick said that the court rejected arguments by plaintiffs that they have an automatic and unlimited right to use the findings.

Some went even further and said that the ruling is grounds for throwing out all plaintiff verdicts in cases that arose from Engle.

The logic of this opinion supports our position that every Engle-related judgment to date against Reynolds in the Florida state courts should be reversed, said R.J. Reynolds general counsel Martin Holton III.

Philip Morris similarly said in a statement that [n]one of the plaintiffs who have obtained verdicts in state court have complied with the requirements set forth by todays rulings.

Indeed, tobacco manufacturers are in the process of appealing a number of verdicts against them, arguing that judges improperly read the Engle findings to juries and told them that they applied to the case at issue. In addition to the 4,000 federal suits directly affected by the recent ruling, there are 4,000 additional cases pending in Florida state court. Many state judges will likely apply the holding to those cases as well.