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Eleventh Circuit rules that retrial of punitive damages claim in Engle-progeny tobacco case will not include retrial of underlying claims for negligence and strict liability for which a jury has already awarded plaintiff $2.125 million

On September 15, 2020, in Sowers v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, No. 18-1191, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in an Engle progeny tobacco case that the district court erred in not allowing the plaintiff to seek punitive damages on her negligence and strict liability claims and remanded the case to the district court for a trial limited to the punitive damages issue. The district court had not allowed the plaintiff to pursue her punitive damages claim because she had not prevailed on her fraudulent concealment claims, but as noted by the Eleventh Circuit, the Florida Supreme Court subsequently ruled in another case that Engle-progeny plaintiffs can pursue punitive damages on all claims properly raised in their subsequent individual actions. The chief issue to which the Eleventh Circuit’s opinion is devoted is the scope of the remand. The plaintiff argued that her $2.125 compensatory damages verdict should not be disturbed and that the new trial should be limited to the punitive damages issue. The defendant argued that the remand should be for a complete retrial of all claims, or as the Eleventh Circuit prosaically puts it: “[a]ctually, what the company wants to do is pressure the elderly widow, whose husband its products killed, out of exercising her right to seek punitive damages from it for that.” The defendant’s legal argument was that under the Reexamination Clause of the Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a full retrial is necessary if there is to be a trial on punitive damages because there is no way to litigate punitive damages without reexamining the first jury’s findings concerning the defendant’s conduct inhering in the jury’s class membership, comparative fault, and compensatory-damages verdicts. Quoting from Gasoline Products Co. v. Champlin Refining Co., 283 U.S. 494, 495–96 (1931), the Eleventh Circuit concluded that the issues are “so distinct and separable” that they may be tried separately “without injustice”, and that they are not “so interwoven” that they cannot be tried separately “without confusion and uncertainty, which would amount to denial of a fair trial.”

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