End of Engle Cigarette Litigation in Eleventh Circuit?

Judge Kevin Newsom begins his opinion for the court in Harris v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 2020 WL 6816965 (11th Cir. Nov. 20, 2020), with the auspicious observation that this Engle case is “one of the last that we’re likely to see.” Correct or not, the comment evokes the long history in the Eleventh Circuit of the progeny of the Florida Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Engle v. Liggett Group, Inc.,945 So. 2d 1246 (Fla. 2006). In Harris, the court considered whether Gerald Harris was a member of the Engle class, a group of plaintiffs who brought suit against several tobacco companies more than 25 years ago alleging that the companies’ tortious conduct caused them to suffer from a number of diseases and medical conditions. He smoked most of his life and suffered from heart disease, oral cavity cancer, vocal cord cancer, and lung cancer. His wife filed suit on his behalf, alleging negligence, product defect, fraudulent concealment, and conspiracy to fraudulently conceal. She argued that he was an Engle class member. Under Engle, if a plaintiff can demonstrate that he is a class member, then the original Engle jury’s findings that the tobacco companies engaged in tortious misconduct, have preclusive effect. A plaintiff is considered a class member if he can show that he suffered from a medical condition that both (1) was caused by cigarette addiction and (2) manifested on or before November 21, 1996. Thus, Mrs. Harris sought to establish that Mr. Harris was a class member so that she wouldn’t have to prove that the defendant tobacco companies committed a tort; it would automatically be established.

Mrs. Harris argued that Mr. Harris was aclass member because he had heart disease and oral cavity cancer. However, the jury found that Mr. Harris’s heart disease was not caused by cigarette addiction and that his oral cavity cancer did not manifest itself by the cut-off date. Nevertheless, the district court proceeded as though Mr. Harris was a class member, allowing the jury to conclude that the defendants’ conduct injured Mr. Harris and that he was entitled to damages.

The defendants moved for judgment in accordance with the jury’s verdict, arguing that because the jury found no medical condition that satisfied both of the prongs to establish class membership, Mr. Harris was not a class member, and Mrs. Harris was not entitled to a finding that the defendants engaged in tortious conduct. And because she had not proven that the defendants behaved tortiously, the defendants were entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The district court denied the motion. The defendants then filed a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law and a motion for new trial, and the district court denied those too.

The Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of the motion for judgment in accordance with the verdict. The court held that because the jury did not find that Mr. Harris had a medical condition that both was caused by his cigarette addiction and manifested on or before November 21, 1996, he was not a member of the Engle class.

The court rejected the district court’s reading of Engle. In holding that Mr. Harris qualified as a class member, the district court inferred from the Florida Supreme Court’s discussion of one of the named plaintiffs, Angie Della Vecchia, that the Engle class included anyone who had at least one medical condition that was caused by cigarette addiction and at least one condition that manifested on or before the cut-off date. But the Eleventh Circuit pointed out that the Engle jury found that Ms. Della Vecchia’s lung cancer was caused by cigarette addiction and it manifested itself before the cut-off date. Further, the Florida Supreme Court stated in its opinion that Ms. Della Vecchia’s COPD was “tobacco related” (which the Eleventh Circuit interpreted to mean it was caused by cigarettes) and manifested itself prior to the cut-off date. The Florida Supreme Court’s opinion therefore demonstrated that Ms. Della Vecchia had two different conditions, both of which satisfied both requirements of the class membership test.

The court also pointed out that the Florida Supreme Court’s discussion of Ms. Della Vecchia’s class membership status was dicta because the issue was not raised or litigated, and she was a named plaintiff. Finally, to uphold the district court’s reading of Engle v. Liggett Group would produce bizarre results: a plaintiff could be considered a class member so long as he had some qualifying medical condition by the cut-off date even if it was wholly unrelated to smoking.

Posted by Kamryn Deegan.

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