In what a dissenting justice called a “fundamental shift,” the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday issued a ruling that likely will make it harder for many plaintiffs suing tobacco companies about smoking-related illnesses.
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In what a dissenting justice called a “fundamental shift,” the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday issued a ruling that likely will make it harder for many plaintiffs suing tobacco companies about smoking-related illnesses.

In a case filed by a woman who suffered a smoking-related illness that led to amputating her legs, a federal appeals court Thursday tossed out a $9 million punitive-damages award and scaled back other parts of a lower-court decision against a tobacco company.

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals cited a March opinion by the Florida Supreme Court in a separate case that made it harder for many plaintiffs to sue tobacco companies.

Thursday’s ruling stemmed from a lawsuit filed by Donna Brown against cigarette maker Philip Morris USA. Brown began smoking at age 15 and ultimately developed peripheral vascular disease, which required amputation of her legs, according to the ruling. Brown filed the lawsuit in 2007 in the federal Middle District of Florida, and a jury sided with her on claims for strict liability, negligence, fraudulent concealment, and conspiracy to fraudulently conceal. It awarded Brown nearly $8.29 million in compensatory damages and $9 million in punitive damages.

But in the appeal, Philip Morris pointed to the recent Florida Supreme Court opinion that said plaintiffs must show that they relied on misleading information from cigarette makers to prevail on claims for fraudulent concealment and conspiracy to fraudulently conceal.

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Thursday’s 24-page ruling, written by appeals-court Judge Gerald Tjoflat and joined by Judges Adalberto Jordan and Jeffrey Beaverstock, said Brown had presented “insufficient evidence” to show that she relied on specific false or misleading statements by the company.

The Atlanta-based court overturned the verdicts on the fraud-related claims but upheld the verdicts against the cigarette maker on strict liability and negligence. It vacated the award of punitive damages and required reducing the compensatory damages based on what is known as “comparative fault.”

The jury had allocated 55 percent of the comparative fault to Philip Morris and 45 percent to Brown, according to the ruling.

The lawsuit was one of thousands of cases filed against tobacco companies after a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision established critical findings about issues such as the dangers of smoking and misrepresentation by cigarette makers. Those lawsuits are known as “Engle progeny” cases.

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