Florida Appellate Court Reverses Directed Verdict in Favor of Tobacco Company in Negligence and Strict Liability Case

In Whitney v. RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co., a woman filed a strict liability and negligence lawsuit against a tobacco company in a Florida state court over the company’s allegedly defectively designed cigarettes. According to the woman, the design defects made her more apt to become addicted to cigarette smoking. As a result, the woman purportedly suffered lung cancer.

At trial, the woman presented a great deal of evidence to support her claims. As part of her case, the woman obtained testimony from an expert physician. The doctor testified under oath that the purported design defects included in the tobacco company’s product made it more likely for smokers to become addicted. The physician also claimed that the cigarettes at issue made it possible for carcinogen-containing smoke to enter deeper lung cavities than other types of tobacco products. According to the expert, this made it more likely that a smoker who used the product at issue would develop cancer. In addition, the doctor stated the cigarettes did not deliver on their promise to reduce health risks by lowering the amount of tar in the product.

During cross-examination, the tobacco company asked the expert if he believed the woman would not have developed lung cancer if she smoked other types of cigarettes. The doctor stated he could not answer the question with any degree of medical certainty. After the woman’s evidence was presented, the tobacco company moved for a directed verdict in its favor. In its motion, the company claimed that the woman did not establish legal causation between the alleged design defect and her injury.

Over the woman’s objections, the trial court agreed with the tobacco company and held that the doctor’s testimony did not demonstrate legal causation. It also found that the expert disavowed his prior statements during cross-examination. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the tobacco company, and the woman asked for a new trial. After the court denied the woman’s request, she filed an appeal with Florida’s First District Court of Appeal.

According to the appellate court, a directed verdict is only appropriate in a negligence case if there was no evidence that might reasonably support the non-moving party’s claims offered to the court. The court added that a design defect claim against a tobacco company does not require a plaintiff to demonstrate the company was the sole proximate cause of his or her harm. The First District next stated the trial court committed error when it ordered a directed verdict in favor of the tobacco company. The court ruled that the lower court misinterpreted both the causation standard at issue and the expert’s testimony.

The Court of Appeals said the causation standard at issue was whether the company’s actions “more likely than not” caused the woman’s harm. This standard did not require her to demonstrate that the tobacco company was over 50 percent responsible for her lung cancer. Additionally, the court stated the woman was not required to prove that the tobacco products were the sole cause of her cancer. Instead, she was tasked with providing evidence to support her assertion that she was addicted to smoking nicotine-filled cigarettes and that this addiction was the legal cause of her lung cancer.

Since the woman presented significant evidence at trial to support her claim that the tobacco company’s product “more likely than not” caused her lung cancer, and the plaintiff’s expert physician did not disavow his previous testimony, Florida’s First District Circuit Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s order directing a verdict in favor of the tobacco company and remanded the case.

If you or someone you love was injured by a dangerous or defective product, an experienced South Florida personal injury attorney can help. To discuss your potential right to recover damages with a skilled lawyer, call the caring personal injury attorneys at Friedman, Rodman & Frank, P.A. today at (305) 448-8585 or contact us through our website.

Additional Resources:

Whitney v. RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co., Fla: Dist. Court of Appeals, 1st Dist. 2014

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