Product Liability Damages Slashed in $1.8M Smoker Case

The widow of a longtime smoker will receive $730,000 after a state court upheld the reduction of a $1.8 million jury award against tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds.

The case demonstrates the importance of having an experienced product liability lawyer able to avoid the often harsh consequences of Florida’s comparative fault statute.cigarette-butt-1021547-m

Our Naples product liability attorney fully understands the ins and outs of the state’s comparative fault law and what it takes to convince a jury that a manufacturer is solely responsible for your injuries.

In R.J. Reynolds v. Hiott, Carolyn Hiott sued R.J. Reynolds for wrongful death after her husband died from lung cancer in 1996. It was estimated that Hiott’s husband smoked 200,000 cigarettes in the 28 years before his death.

The case was tried in Duval County Circuit Court under the guidelines for tobacco litigation established by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006. The jury found R.J. Reynolds negligent and strictly liable for marketing a defective and unreasonably dangerous product.

In addition, the jury found R.J. Reynolds liable for fraudulently concealing the health risks and addictive nature of cigarette smoking over the course of many decades.

While the jury awarded a total of $1.825 million in damages, it also found that Hiott’s husband was 60 percent at fault for his smoking-related illness, with R.J. Reynolds 40 percent responsible for the smoker’s death. Accordingly, the trial court applied Florida’s comparative fault statute to reduce Hiott’s damages to $730,000.

The statute requires a court in a negligence case to enter judgment on the basis of a party’s percentage of fault. The law applies to product liability actions, specifically directing trial judges to instruct the jury on the apportionment of fault whenever it is alleged injury was caused or enhanced by a defective product.

While the law seems straightforward, as the Hiott case demonstrates, it takes the services of an experienced product liability lawyer to ensure that it isn’t applied in a manner that harms his client.

Hiott’s lawyers appealed the reduction of their client’s $1.825 million award. They argued that the state’s comparative fault law does not apply in product liability cases involving intentional misconduct like the fraudulent concealment of smoking hazards by R.J. Reynolds as found by the jury.

But the Florida Court of Appeal in Tallahassee recently found several problems with that argument.

In rejecting Hiott’s plea for the full award of damages, the court first noted that Hiott’s lawyers had requested an apportionment of damages when they originally filed her lawsuit, without making any distinction between her negligent and intentional injury claims.

The appellate court further recognized that Hiott’s lawyers made a tactical decision at trial to admit that Hiott’s husband was partly at fault — dealing head-on with a notion that was probably already on the minds of the jurors.

The court concluded that by admitting that Mr. Hiott was partly at fault as a tactic to secure an advantage with the jury, Mrs. Hiott lawyers could not now seek to have it both ways by avoiding comparative fault after the jury returned its verdict.

In sum, the court concluded that Hiott’s lawyers had waived the argument that comparative fault did not apply by their handling of the issue before and during trial.

To get help from an experienced Naples product liability lawyer, contact The Hollander Law Firm today at (toll free) 888.751.7777.