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Fla. court reform group: Engle rulings denying tobacco companies chance to defend against big judgments

By Carrie Bradon | Mar 5, 2019


The U.S. Supreme Court recently refused to hear appeals from three tobacco companies ordered to pay punitive damages in eight Florida cases decided under so-called Engle rulings, according to a Florida Watchdog report, even though the companies claimed they had not been given the chance to build their defense.

Engle rulings originated in 2006, when the Florida Supreme Court upheld a ruling from the Florida Third District Court of Appeal dismissing a $144.8 billion class action liability verdict in the case of Engle v. Liggett Group on the grounds that individual details were necessary to hear each case, and so a class action was not appropriate. The decision maintained individual plaintiffs would have to file their own lawsuits against tobacco companies in the future. 

Since the Engle ruling, big tobacco companies have paid out millions in compensatory damages and there are as many as 8,000 lawsuits remaining outstanding from the Engle v. Liggett Groupruling.

William Large of the Florida Justice Reform Institute recently talked with the Florida Record about the difficult nature of this case and what it will take to move the individual lawsuits forward.

The dedicated president of our lobbying organization in Tallahassee, FL
 William Large of the Florida Justice Reform Institute   Courtesy of FJRI

“Tobacco companies have argued since 2006 that the Engle decision isn’t fair,” Large said. “The reason is because the findings from one decision, Engle, were applicable to all future cases. Because of that, tobacco companies have argued that concepts of due process haven’t been followed.”

Large likened the Engle decision to a one-size-fits-all ruling for other types of incidents, such as a slip-and-fall. 

“The problem with the Engle case is that the courts have applied the findings from one decision to all future cases, which would be like applying the findings of one slip-and fall to all future slip-and-falls," Large said. "It just doesn’t take into account the individual details of each case."

The eight cases that were in question on Feb. 25 sought over $120 million as awards for smokers and their relatives. The defendants – Altria Group, British American Tobacco and Liggett Group LLC – claimed the Engle ruling holdings effectively deprived them of the opportunity to build a defense.