U.S. appeals court deals setback to Florida tobacco plaintiffs

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court ruling on Wednesday could make it more difficult for smokers suing tobacco companies in Florida to prove claims that cigarettes are dangerous and that tobacco companies were negligent.

The ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reverses more than $800,000 in damages from R.J. Reynolds and Altria Group Inc unit Philip Morris USA Inc awarded in 2013 to Earl Graham, whose wife Faye, a longtime smoker, died in 1993 of lung cancer.

More broadly, the court said smokers who, like Graham, were originally part of a massive class action in Florida against the tobacco companies could not rely on findings from the class action trial to prove claims that cigarettes are defective and tobacco companies were negligent.

That class action, Engle v. Liggett, resulted in a $145 billion award, which was overturned. But the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 said smokers could use findings from the trial in their individual lawsuits. Thousands of lawsuits, known as the Engle progeny, were filed in Florida federal and state courts, resulting in multiple multimillion-dollar verdicts against tobacco defendants.

In appealing the Graham verdict, R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris said it was unfair to allow Engle progeny plaintiffs to hold tobacco companies liable based on the class action jury findings, which have been applied across the board to many cigarette brands and makers.

The 11th Circuit agreed, saying Florida courts had interpreted those findings with such “unprecedented breadth” that it created a legal duty that was the “functional equivalent of a flat ban” on tobacco, which the U.S. Congress had expressly declined to impose. Plaintiffs bringing strict liability and negligence claims against the tobacco companies must build cases based on their specific injury rather than the inherent risks of smoking, the 11th Circuit held.

The decision will not affect claims alleging that companies conspired to cover up the dangers of smoking, the ruling said.

Philip Morris declined to comment. Lawyers for the plaintiff and R.J. Reynolds could not immediately be reached for comment.

Tobacco companies said in February that they will pay $100 million to settle most federal smoking lawsuits. Thousands of cases remain pending in state court. While the 11th Circuit’s ruling will not have an immediate effect there, Florida state appeals courts have often looked to that court for guidance in ruling on similar issues.

The case is Graham v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co, 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 13-14590.

Reporting by Jessica Dye; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi