Coates v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company

Supreme Court of Florida

Coates v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company—(J. Polston; FLSC; 1/5/23). This is a major opinion limiting punitive damages. This was a wrongful death case that is not an Engle-progeny case even though it pertains to wrongful death from smoking brought against a tobacco company. The version of the wrongful death statute analyzed was the 1997 version. The decedent died from smoking R.J. Reynolds cigarettes, and the estate filed claims of (1) negligence, (2) strict-liability design defect, (3) fraud, and (4) conspiracy. The jury found for the plaintiff only on the strict liability claim, not negligence, fraud, or conspiracy. The jury awarded $100,000 to each of the decedent’s three children for loss of parental companionship, pain and suffering, etc. The jury found the decedent 50% responsible, however, so that reduced the amount from $300,000 to $150,000. The evidence at the punitive damages portion of the trial demonstrated significant reprehensibility by Reynolds in designing its cigarettes. It used a tobacco curing process designed to make the smoke “smoother” and manipulated the levels of nicotine and other additives to make its product easily inhalable and addictive. Its advertising efforts, particularly those advertisements produced in the early years of the decedent’s addiction, were intended to entice young people to begin smoking and to suggest, if not convince, consumers that smoking was safe. But it was well established that the inhalation of cigarette smoke is not safe. The jury awarded $16 million in punitive damages. R.J. Reynolds challenged the punitive damages in a motion for remittitur, the trial court denied the motion, and R.J. Reynolds appealed. Back in 2020, the 5th DCA reversed for reasons not discussed in the FLSC opinion. The DCA, however, certified a question of great public importance, and the Florida Supreme Court exercised jurisdiction and only took 2 or 3 years to weigh in. The specific question was, “When other factors support the amount of punitive damages awarded, but the award is excessive compared to the compensatory award, does the amount of punitive damages that may legally be imposed for causing the death of a human being depend on the actual amount of compensatory damages awarded to the decedent’s estate, even when that compensatory award is modest and the punitive award would be sustainable compared to awards in other cases for comparable injuries caused by comparable misconduct?” The court led their opinion by noting that while the trial court has broad discretion in ruling on a motion for remittitur, that discretion is constrained by statutory criteria that have to be applied to determine whether an award is excessive. The court expressly declined to address any Florida or federal constitutional questions and simply analyzed the issue as one of statutory interpretation because the statute requires that punitive damages in a wrongful death case be reasonably related to the amount of damages proved and the injury suffered by beneficiaries. The court then rephrased the certified question to one with a laughably obvious answer, “Does the trial court in a wrongful death action abuse its discretion by denying remittitur of a punitive damages award that does not bear a reasonable relation to the amount of damages proved and the injury suffered by the statutory beneficiaries?” Their answer was, of course, yes, and so it approved the DCA’s reversal of the trial court’s denial of the motion for remittitur on the basis that the punitive damages bore no reasonable relation to the compensatory damages. Sections 768.73 and 768.74, Florida Statutes (1997), govern punitive damages. The court noted that the former was substantially amended in 2021, but the latter remains the same. Section 768.73 (the 1997 version) creates a presumption that punitive damages that exceed a ratio of 3:1 in relation to compensatory damages except in class actions are excessive. Section 768.74, the remittitur and additur statute, requires the trial court, upon a party’s motion, to evaluate whether an award is excessive, and it requires the court to examine five criteria. The fourth of the five—whether 5 there was a reasonable relation to the amount of damages proved and the injury suffered—is the one at issue here. Reading the statutes together, all punitive damages awards challenged by a motion for remittitur must bear a reasonable relationship to the compensatory damages. The court clarified that the rule applies to wrongful death cases. While the decedent’s beneficiaries argued that the $16 million was compensation for their mother’s death, the court clarified that the death itself is not compensated by the wrongful death statute. Rather, it’s just the impact on the statutory beneficiaries, which was compensated at $150,000. The statute compensates the living, not the dead. The Supreme Court recognized the trouble with allowing huge verdicts for injuries in torts, but then barring compensation if the tort actually kills you, but they say that’s the way the statute is written. They literally state in regard to the wrongful death statute, “Nowhere does the statute authorize recovery on behalf of the estate for the decedent’s death.” (NOTE: In brushing aside the constitutional issues, the Court does not make clear whether the plaintiff argued that the limitation on punitive damages was challenged as unconstitutional either facially or as applied to a wrongful death case. While the court stated that it was dodging the constitutional issue because the case could be resolved by statutory interpretation, that should not be true of the statutory language itself is unconstitutional). The court then analyzed the specific ratio in this case, stating:

  • Although we cannot say it was unreasonable to conclude that the facts and circumstances support departing from the 3:1 cap of section 768.73(1)…that is not the end of the inquiry. Rather, section 768.74(5)(d) imposes a further check against an excessive punitive damages award that turns on “[w]hether the amount awarded bears a reasonable relation to the amount of damages proved and the injury suffered.” Looking to the undisputed facts in this record, no reasonable trial court could have concluded that the $16 million punitive damages award survives that check.

The Court noted that the $150,000 in

  • damages findings in this case sit in stark contrast to other wrongful death cases where the proof of more significant injury to the statutory beneficiaries resulted in much larger compensatory damages awards that, in turn, supported higher punitive damages awards. See, e.g., Schoeff, 232 So. 3d at 299, 308-09 (holding the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying remittitur of a $30 million punitive damages award where the jury found the tobacco company liable for the decedent’s wrongful death on multiple claims, including fraudulent concealment, and awarded $10.5 million in compensatory damages).

JUSTICE LABARGA continues to be the GREAT DISSENTER in the current court, and JUSTICE FRANCIS again did not participate, likely because she was not around for the oral argument. The rest of the justices concurred. JUSTIC LABARGA’s DISSENT decried the reduction of the verdict from over $16 million to $150,000, a fraction of what the jury determined was warranted. He opined that the majority opinion “unreasonably concludes that the decedent’s death is not a cognizable injury for purposes of punitive damages claims.” He opines that while the statute does not provide compensatory damages for the death, that does not mean that the punitive damages should be unable to punish for the death. Punitive damages are supposed to deter conduct, and the conduct to be deterred was the conduct resulting in death. The ruling “guts the impact of punitive damages in wrongful death cases” because the majority finds that the death cannot be considered as an injury suffered. “The majority’s interpretation raises the question: when evaluating punitive damages in a wrongful death case, how can a decedent’s death not be a cognizable injury?” He then stated, “It is 6 not hard to imagine a situation under the majority’s interpretation where the punitive damages awarded to a living victim will far exceed the punitive damages awarded if a victim dies. Recognizing death as a cognizable injury for punitive damage purposes would maintain the Wrongful Death Act’s function of defining available compensatory damages without robbing punitive damage awards of their purpose. Because of the untenable results that will flow from the majority’s interpretation, I respectfully dissent.”

Terry P. Roberts
Director of Appellate Practice Fischer Redavid PLLC
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