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Florida Court Reverses $15.5 Million Verdict against R.J. Reynolds

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On January 15, a Florida Appeals Court threw out a $15.5 million judgment against R.J. Reynold’s Tobacco Company over the death of a lifelong smoker who succumbed to cancer. The court found that the jurors were provided with insufficient information to find the company liable for the claim of conspiracy to conceal information fraudulently.

The court ordered a new trial to be heard in Frances Bessent-Dixon’s case on behalf of her late husband, Tyrone Dixon. Tyrone died of laryngeal cancer at the age of 38. The three-judge panelruled that the trial court made the mistake of not instructing the jury that in order to have a valid claim, Bessent-Dixon needed to prove that her husband relied on a false statement by R.J. Reynolds.

This decision was based on R.J. Reynolds v Prentice’s previous decisions in 2019, and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Whitmire in 2018. The Court stated, “The incorrect instruction allowed [Bessent-Dixon] to argue that the jury could find [Reynolds] liable for an intentional tort where noevidence was presented, or argument offered, that the decedent relied on false information.”

The Bessent-Dixon case is one of thousands of what is referred to as ‘Engle progeny cases’ filed once the Florida Supreme Court overturned a $145 billion verdict in Engle v. Liggett Group Inc. in 2006. The judgment decertified a group of Florida residents who had become sick or had died due to smoking.

The judgment against Reynolds consisted of $13.5 million in punitive damages and $2 million in compensatory damages. The jurors awarded the damages in two separate phases.

In the first phase of the case in 2018, the attorney commented that Dixon started smoking at between 11 and 12 years of age. He continued until shortly before his death at 38 in 1994. The jury found Reynolds 58% responsible, while Dixon bore the remaining responsibility.

Jurors concluded that Bessent-Dixon suffered $300,000 worth of damages for her husband’s loss of support and services. They awarded her $1 million in damages for mental suffering, anguish, and loss of companionship. The Dixon’s two children were also awarded $350,000.In February 2019, a second jury awarded extra punitive damages to Besset-Dixon and the children.