I have written about this from the beginning (just search for "Engle" and you'll get the low-down), but here's a recap:
1. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court quashed a Miami-Dade County jury that had leveled a $145 billion verdict -- the largest punitive damage award in American legal history-- against five tobacco companies in so-called Engle class action. The Florida Supremes correctly found that each smoker's situation was unique, and so a class action was inappropriate. But they also found that the Miami-Dade jury's finding that the five tobacco companies had misrepresented the addictive nature and health dangers of cigarettes was supported by the evidence. Thus, they held, all the individual lawsuits to be expected (and which had to be filed by January 2008) need not re-litigate that issue.
2. The slow drip-drip-drip of litigation against "Big Tobacco" then began. Millions at a time were adjudged to individuals, and the prospect that many billions might eventually have to be paid became real.
3. The biggest single verdict of all in these individual suits was in November 2009, a suit filed by the sister of former Ft. Lauderdale mayor Jim Naugle, against Philip Morris. Plaintiff Lucinda Naugle was awarded a whopping $300,000,000.00, 81% of which was a punitive award. Ms. Naugle had allegedly smoked Benson & Hedges cigarettes, a Philip Morris brand, for 25 years (starting, significantly, before strong mandated government warnings in 1986). She developed emphysema, and alleged she would never have started smoking and become addicted to nicotine had the defendant not committed the fraud and misrepresentation found by the Florida Supreme Court.
4. The trial judge in the Naugle case reduced the award to $36.8 million, an 88% reduction, on the grounds that the jury award was based on anger and passion, not on the evidence.
5. This week, the Fourth District Court of Appeals in West Palm Beach struck even that reduced award, on the grounds that the judge should have ordered a new trial (i.e., declared a mistrial) once he found that the jury award was tainted by passion and prejudice. The Court of Appeals ordered a new trial, but only to determine damages, not to determine liability to Ms. Naugle.
The beat goes on!