Cases & Deals

R.J. Reynolds wins jury verdict in Vasko ''Engle progeny'' lawsuit

Client(s) R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company

Jones Day successfully represented R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in the latest "Engle progeny" lawsuit to reach a jury verdict, marking the continuation of a string of seven defense verdicts in the past two months. On November 4, 2010, after ten days of trial, a state court jury in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida returned a verdict in favor of R.J. Reynolds in Vasko v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. The jury deliberated approximately five hours before issuing a defense verdict for R.J. Reynolds in this wrongful death action.

The plaintiff in Vasko, acting as personal representative for her deceased husband (who had smoked cigarettes manufactured by R.J. Reynolds) asserted claims for strict liability, negligence, fraudulent concealment, conspiracy, and breach of express and implied warranty. She argued that her husband was a member of the class decertified by the Florida Supreme Court in Engle v. Liggett Group, Inc., 945 So. 2d 1246 (Fla. 2006). The Engle action was filed as a purported class action against R.J. Reynolds and other cigarette manufacturer defendants on May 5, 1994. Over the Engle defendants' objection, on November 21, 1996, a class was certified to include "[a]ll Florida citizens and residents, and their survivors, who have suffered, presently suffer or who have died from diseases and medical conditions caused by their addiction to cigarettes that contain nicotine." The Florida Supreme Court eventually decertified the Engle class on a going-forward basis, but stated that members of the decertified class could initiate individual actions against the Engle defendants. The Court declared that in those individual actions, certain generalized findings from the 1999 class action trial in the Engle case were to be given an unspecified "res judicata effect" as to members of the class. Over 9,000 plaintiffs now have cases pending in Florida. To gain the benefit of the findings, a given plaintiff (such as Ms. Vasko) must first establish class membership. Although the jury in the Vasko trial determined that the smoker's illness (in this case the plaintiff's husband's COPD) was caused by his addiction to cigarettes containing nicotine, the jury further found that the plaintiff's claims were barred because he knew or should have known that his illness was related to smoking before May 5, 1990.

Vasko was the twenty-ninth Engle progeny case to be tried to a verdict in the Florida state courts since 2009. It also marks the seventh defense verdict in a row in these lawsuits since August 2010.

Vasko, Loretta M. et al. v. RJRTC, et al., Case No. 2008-CV-001124(19) (Fla. 17th Cir. Ct.)