Cases & Deals

R.J. Reynolds prevails in appeal of preemption decision

Clients R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company

On April 8, 2015, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that federal law preempts claims for strict liability and negligence made against tobacco companies in the context of the Engle class action. The landmark decision, Graham v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., is a significant victory for Reynolds, which is represented by Jones Day. The decision potentially impacts thousands of claims asserted by Engle class members against Reynolds and other leading cigarette manufacturers.

In the Engle class action, a jury found that various cigarette manufacturers, including Reynolds, had sold defective cigarettes and breached duties of care to smokers. The Florida Supreme Court then decertified the class, but allowed former class members to bring subsequent individual actions based on these jury findings. Some 9,000 of these individual actions were filed in state and federal court in Florida.

In Graham, the Eleventh Circuit held that federal law preempts state tort claims based on the inherent dangerousness of all cigarettes. According to the court, this includes strict-liability and negligence claims based on the Engle findings, which rest on the premise that all cigarettes are defective because of their inherent health risks. As the court explained, allowing the imposition of tort liability for the sale of ordinary cigarettes would be "inconsistent with the full purposes and objectives of Congress, which has sought for over fifty years to safeguard consumers' right to choose whether to smoke or not to smoke."

Gregory Katsas (Washington) argued the appeal for Reynolds. Other members of the team included partners Stephanie Parker (Atlanta) and Charles Morse (New York) and associate Jason Burnette (Atlanta).

Graham v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., No. 13-14590 (11th Cir.)