Eleventh Circuit Upends Florida’s Tobacco Litigation Framework

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The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has determined that Florida’s “Engle” litigation framework—under which a plaintiff may rely on a former class action’s generic jury findings about nicotine cigarettes to establish a particular tobacco company’s strict liability and negligence—effectively operates as a state ban on cigarettes. The court reasoned that such a ban contravenes Congress’s aim to regulate, but not ban cigarettes, and is thus preempted by federal law. See Graham v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., No. 13-14590, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 5657 (11th Cir. Apr. 8, 2015).

Background

The Engle framework evolved from a class action filed in 1994 that encompassed an estimated 700,000 Floridians with claims against the major tobacco companies for medical conditions allegedly caused by their addiction to nicotine cigarettes. The class was certified, and after a year-long trial, the jury found for the class on all counts. The Florida Supreme Court subsequently affirmed a decertification of the class, but determined that the jury’s findings would have “res judicata effect” in cases filed by former class members against one or more of the tobacco companies.

Over the years, this “res judicata” directive came to mean, as in the Graham case, that a plaintiff would benefit from extremely advantageous strict liability and negligence instructions informing a jury that the defendants had placed defective cigarettes on the market, and that the defendants had been negligent. In other words, plaintiffs would be relieved from proving the duty and breach elements of their claims, and defendants would be precluded from disputing those elements. Thus, a plaintiff would merely have to show that she had been a member of the decertified class (and thus a beneficiary of the jury’s findings), that addiction to the defendants’ cigarettes was a legal cause of her alleged injuries, and damages. The Graham plaintiff succeeded in this regard.

The tobacco companies argued, inter alia, that federal law preempted the verdict, inasmuch as it was premised on the imposition of common law duties amounting to a ban on their products. They noted that, subject to regulation, Congress had determined to allow the sale of nicotine cigarettes despite the known health risks and addictive properties.

The Court’s Determination

After examining the history and breadth of federal legislation regulating nicotine cigarettes in the United States, the court observed that “Congress has never intended to prohibit consumers from purchasing cigarettes. To the contrary, it has designed ‘a distinct regulatory scheme’ to govern the product’s advertising, labelling, and—most importantly—sale.” Thus, the court found a congressional aim to regulate, not ban, the sale of cigarettes.

In contrast, the court found that the res judicata instructions derived from the Engle litigation amounted to a flat ban on cigarette sales. This is because “[t]he Florida courts have come to interpret the Engle Phase I jury findings to demand an outcome Congress has sought to avoid, namely, the imposition of a duty that was breached every time a cigarette manufacturer placed a cigarette on the market to be sold.” As the court explained, “[the State of Florida] may not enforce a duty, as it has through the Engle jury findings, premised on the theory that all cigarettes are inherently defective and that every cigarette sale is an inherently negligent act.” Accordingly, the court determined that, as framed under the generic findings of the Engle framework, the Graham plaintiff’s strict liability and negligence claims were preempted by federal law.

Graham is a momentous opinion that is likely to engender efforts for further appellate review. The opinion will not affect most lawsuits that were pending in federal court, as the tobacco companies announced in February that they would settle those actions for $100 million. However, if the opinion stands, it may influence the future of thousands of cases pending in Florida state courts. Plainly put, if Florida courts adopt the Eleventh Circuit’s reasoning, plaintiffs will have to establish each element of their affected claims without the advantage of significant legal shortcuts.

The attorneys at Hernandez Lee Martinez have extensive experience handling class actions and products liability litigation. Please contact us to find out how we can help you in your particular situation