Cases & Deals

R.J. Reynolds wins reversal of adverse punitive damages award in Engle progeny lawsuit

Clients R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company

Jones Day represented R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in an Engle progeny wrongful death action brought by the estate of deceased smoker Valton Sheffield. The Florida legislature amended its punitive damages statute in 1999; among other things, the amendments presumptively bar successive punitive damages awards for "the same act or single course of conduct." Mr. Sheffield's injury occurred before 1999, but his death did not occur until after 1999. The case thus presented the question whether the 1999 amendments to the punitive damages statute apply to a wrongful death cause of action based on a death that occurred after the amendments' effective date, if the decedent's injury occurred before the effective date. In line with the decisions of three Florida appellate courts, the trial court concluded that the amendments did not apply. The jury returned a $5 million punitive damages verdict.

On appeal, a Jones Day team persuaded the Fifth District Court of Appeals to break with that consensus and reverse. As the Fifth District held, the 1999 amendments to the punitive damages statute apply to any wrongful death cause of action premised on a death occurring after the effective date of the amendments. Statutory language and longstanding precedent compel that conclusion: Under settled law, a wrongful death cause of action arises only on the date of the underlying death, and there is no special exception to that settled law for Engle progeny cases.

The Fifth District reversed the punitive damages award and remanded for the trial court to conduct further proceedings under the proper punitive damages statute, if the plaintiff can overcome the presumptive bar on successive punitive damages awards.

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Sheffield, No. 5D17-2521 (Fla. 5th DCA)