Appeals Court Overturns $5.9 Million Florida Wrongful Death Verdict Against Tobacco Company

117 morguefile cherylholtIn Aycock v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., a Florida woman filed a wrongful death case in the Middle District of Florida against a tobacco company over her husband’s 1996 lung cancer death. In her complaint, the woman sought both compensatory and punitive damages from the company that manufactured the cigarettes her spouse smoked throughout their marriage. According to the woman, his nicotine addiction caused her husband’s death. Evidence provided to the court suggested that the decedent was also addicted to alcohol.

The man’s cancer was reportedly discovered when he was admitted to a local hospital “complaining of confusion, disorientation, and impairment of equilibrium.” At the time, the man’s treating physicians diagnosed him with lung cancer that spread to his brain. The man’s death certificate listed “lung cancer” as his cause of death, but the man’s family apparently refused a biopsy to confirm his diagnosis.

Prior to trial, the woman filed a motion to exclude certain evidence related to her husband’s alleged alcohol abuse. Although the court granted the woman’s motion, it allowed limited evidence related to his alcohol consumption to be considered when determining compensatory damages. Eventually, a Florida jury returned a verdict of $5.9 million in favor of the woman. The verdict was later reduced by the 27.5 percent of fault that jurors attributed to her husband. Because of this, the trial court entered a judgment of more than $4.2 million in favor of the man’s wife. After that, the trial court denied the tobacco company’s motion for a new trial, and the company filed an appeal with the nation’s Eleventh Circuit.

The deceased man’s cause of death was a contentious issue at trial. According to the appellate court, the trial court improperly shifted the burden of proof regarding the cause of the man’s death onto the tobacco company. The court stated the burden should instead have been on the man’s wife to demonstrate that his “addiction to cigarettes more likely than not caused his death.” Similarly, the court also held that the lower court improperly excluded evidence related to the decedent’s alleged alcohol abuse. The court said such evidence provided relevant information regarding the likelihood of whether the man actually died as a result of lung cancer. Next, the Eleventh Circuit held that allowing evidence related to the man’s alleged alcoholism to be introduced to the jury was not unfairly prejudicial to the woman’s case.

Since the appeals court found that the trial court committed error when it excluded certain evidence related to the decedent’s purported alcohol use, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed the jury’s decision and remanded the case for a new trial.

If you or someone you love was hurt or killed by a dangerous product in Florida, you may be entitled to recover financial damages. To speak with a knowledgeable Miami personal injury attorney about your right to recovery, please call Friedman, Rodman & Frank, P.A. at (305) 448-8585 or contact us online.

Additional Resources:

Aycock v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit 2014

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Photo Credit: cherylholt, MorgueFile

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