Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Schoeff v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

Supreme Court of Florida

December 14, 2017

JOAN SCHOEFF, etc., Petitioner,


         Application for Review of the Decision of the District Court of Appeal-Direct Conflict of Decisions Fourth District - Case No. 4D13-1765 (Broward County)

          John S. Mills and Courtney Brewer, The Mills Firm, P.A., Tallahassee, Florida; Alex Alvarez, The Alvarez Law Firm, Coral Gables, Florida; Gary M. Paige, Gordon & Doner, Davie, Florida; Laurie J. Briggs and T. Hardee Bass III of Searcy Denney Scarola Barnart & Shipley, PA, West Palm Beach, Florida; and Robert S. Glazier of Law Office of Robert S. Glazier, Miami, Florida, for Petitioner.

          Donald B. Ayer, Jones Day, Washington, D.C. and Charles R.A. Morse, Jones Day, New York, New York; Robert C. Weill and Eric L. Lundt of GrayRobinson, P.A. Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for Respondent.

          Gary M. Farmer, Sr. of Farmer, Jaffe, Weissing, Edwards, Fistos & Lehrman, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Amicus Curiae Florida Justice Association.

          Celene H. Humphries, Steven L. Brannock, Maegen P. Luka, and Thomas J. Seider, Brannock & Humphries, Tampa, Florida, Amicus Curiae Engle Plaintiffs' Firms.

          QUINCE, J.

         Joan Schoeff seeks review of the decision of the Fourth District Court of Appeal in R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Schoeff, 178 So.3d 487 (Fla. 4th DCA 2015), on the ground that it expressly and directly conflicts with the First District Court of Appeal's decision in R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Sury, 118 So.3d 849 (Fla. 1st DCA 2013), on the applicability of the comparative fault statute to Engle [1] progeny cases. We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(3), Fla. Const.

         We find that the comparative fault statute does not apply to Engle progeny cases in which the jury finds for the plaintiff on the intentional torts such that the compensatory damage awards in those cases are not subject to reduction. For the reasons that follow, we quash the Fourth District's decision on both the compensatory and punitive damages issues below and approve the First District's decision to the extent that it did not reduce compensatory damages under the comparative fault statute.


         In 1994, the Engle class action was filed against tobacco companies including R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (RJR). The class included all Florida smokers who had contracted diseases caused by smoking. The Engle class raised claims including strict liability, negligence, fraudulent concealment, and conspiracy. Engle v. Liggett Grp., Inc., 945 So.2d 1246, 1255-57, 1257 n.4 (Fla. 2006). In the first phase of the trial, the jury determined that the tobacco companies were negligent, marketed defective cigarettes, and conspired to conceal the risks of smoking. Id. at 1277. In the second phase of the trial, the jury found the defendants were liable to three class representatives and awarded the class a total of $145 billion[2] in punitive damages. Id. at 1257. The defendants appealed. Id. at 1258.

         On appeal, the Third District decertified the class and found the punitive awards excessive. Liggett Grp. Inc. v. Engle, 853 So.2d 434, 442-58 (Fla. 3d DCA 2003). This Court agreed that the punitive awards were excessive and that continued class treatment was not feasible "because individualized issues such as . . . comparative fault . . . predominate." Engle, 945 So.2d at 1268. This Court also authorized members of the decertified class to file individual cases and held that findings from the first phase of trial including defect, negligence, concealment, and conspiracy would have res judicata effect in their individual cases. Id. at 1269-70.

The district court below described the proceedings at trial in this case:
R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company ("RJR") appeals the final judgment entered in favor of Joan Schoeff Spolzino as Representative of the estate of her deceased husband, James Schoeff ("Plaintiff"). RJR raises four issues on appeal. First, it contends that the trial court erred in denying its motion for a directed verdict because Plaintiff failed to prove addiction causation. Second, it asserts that certain comments made by Plaintiff's counsel during closing necessitate a new trial. Third, it argues that the court erred in denying its motion to remit the jury's compensatory and punitive damages awards. Fourth, it argues that the court's application of the Engle findings violated its due process rights. Plaintiff cross-appeals, arguing that the court erroneously reduced the jury's compensatory damages award based on Mr. Schoeff's comparative fault. We reverse and remand for remittitur of the punitive portion of the judgment, and affirm in all other respects.
a) Pleadings
The instant case is an Engle progeny case. See Engle v. Liggett Group, Inc., 945 So.2d 1246 (Fla. 2006). Plaintiff filed suit against RJR asserting membership in the Engle class because her husband died from lung cancer "caused by his addiction to cigarettes." In her suit, Plaintiff alleged causes of action for strict liability, fraud by concealment, conspiracy to commit fraud by concealment, negligence, and gross negligence. She also admitted that Mr. Schoeff shared some fault for his smoking-related injuries and represented that she would "seek apportionment of fault, pursuant to the principles of comparative fault, on the counts for negligence and strict liability; however not with respect to the counts constituting intentional torts as pled in this action."
b) The Trial
The case proceeded to trial in two phases in the manner we approved in R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Brown, 70 So.3d 707, 714 (Fla. 4th DCA 2011). In the first phase, the jury was asked to: 1) determine whether Mr. Schoeff was a member of the Engle class; 2) if so, whether RJR's conduct was the legal cause of his death; and 3) determine damages. The jury was also asked to determine whether Plaintiff was entitled to punitive damages if it found against RJR on Plaintiff's claims for fraudulent concealment or conspiracy to fraudulently conceal.
After considering the evidence, the jury returned its verdict, finding that Mr. Schoeff was addicted to nicotine, his addiction was a legal cause of his lung cancer and death; and that the negligence of RJR as well as the defective and unreasonably dangerous cigarettes manufactured by RJR were a legal cause of Mr. Schoeff's lung cancer and death. It allocated Mr. Schoeff's comparative fault for his injuries at 25%. Additionally, the jury found that Mr. Schoeff detrimentally relied on statements made by RJR which concealed or omitted material information, and that such reliance was a legal cause of his cancer and death. Based on these findings, the jury awarded Plaintiff $10.5 million in compensatory damages and found that punitive damages were warranted.
The second phase of the trial concerned the proper amount of punitive damages. During closing arguments in this phase, Plaintiff's counsel asked the jury to award Plaintiff $25 million in punitive damages and no more. Specifically, counsel stated: "you may think that's too low, but we urge you not to go above that. Please do not go above 25 million. Do not. She doesn't want that. Do not go above that." Despite Plaintiff's urging, the jury returned a verdict assessing $30 million in punitive damages against RJR.
c) Post-Trial Motions and Rulings
Following the trial, RJR filed a motion asking the court to reduce the compensatory damages award to reflect the comparative fault assigned to Mr. Schoeff by the jury. Plaintiff filed a response in opposition arguing that the comparative fault statute should not apply since the jury found RJR committed the intentional tort of fraudulent concealment. Additionally, RJR moved for a new trial on evidentiary grounds. In the alternative, RJR moved for remittitur of both the compensatory and punitive damages awards, arguing that they were both excessive and not supported by the evidence.
Considering the above pleadings, the trial court granted RJR's motion to enter judgment consistent with the jury's finding on comparative fault, denied RJR's motion for a new trial, and denied RJR's motion to remit the compensatory and punitive damages awards. In granting RJR's motion to reduce the jury's compensatory award by Mr. Schoeff's comparative fault, the court ruled that Plaintiff waived her argument regarding comparative fault based on representations counsel made to the jury. Alternatively, the court ruled that even if Plaintiff had not waived her argument, the intentional tort exception to the comparative fault statute would not apply as Plaintiff's suit was a products liability suit at its core. In denying RJR's motion to remit the punitive damages award, the court recognized that there was no logical basis for the jury to award a larger amount than Plaintiff requested, but found that the jury's award was "NOT infected by bias, prejudice, passion or any other sentiment against Defendant."
In accordance with its above rulings, the court entered final judgment awarding Plaintiff $7, 875, 000 in compensatory damages and $30 million in punitive damages, for a total of $37, 875, 000. This appeal follows.

Schoeff, 178 So.3d at 488-90 (footnotes omitted). The Fourth District affirmed the trial court's denial of RJR's motion for a directed verdict, denial of the motion for a new trial, grant of RJR's motion to remit the jury's compensatory damages, and application of Engle findings to Mrs. Schoeff's case. Id. at 490.

         The Fourth District also concluded that the $30 million punitive damages award was unconstitutionally excessive in light of the $10.5 million compensatory damages. Id. at 491. The decision further held that even if the punitive damages were not unconstitutional, remittitur was necessary under section 768.74(5)(e), Florida Statutes (2012), because Mrs. Schoeff had begged the jury not to award more than $25 million and a larger award "could [not] be adduced in a logical manner." Id. at 491-92 (quoting § 768.74(5)(e)). Finally, the Fourth District majority determined that the proper remedy for the punitive damages issue would be for the trial court to grant RJR's motion for remittitur or hold a new trial on punitive damages if RJR did not agree to the amount of the remittitur. Id. at 492.

         Next, the district court rejected Mrs. Schoeff's cross-appeal regarding the trial court's reduction of compensatory damages, finding that she had waived the intentional tort exception by arguing comparative fault to the jury because no reasonable jury could "possibly understand that its comparative fault determination was going to have no effect whatsoever on its compensatory damages award." Id. at 494. Reviewing the trial court's decision de novo, the majority also found that the comparative fault statute applies to Engle progeny cases in which the jury finds for the plaintiff on the intentional tort claims because Engle progeny cases are "grounded in negligence." Id. at 495-96. The majority acknowledged that its de novo standard of review created conflict with the First District's review for abuse of discretion in Sury. See id. (citing Sury, 118 So.3d 849). The First District held in Sury that the comparative fault statute does not apply to Engle progeny cases in which the jury finds for the plaintiff on intentional tort claims because they sound in intentional tort rather than negligence. Sury, 118 So.3d at 852. We accepted jurisdiction.

         We first consider issues related to compensatory damages: the comparative fault statute, its intentional tort exception, and whether Mrs. Schoeff waived the intentional tort exception by arguing comparative fault of the smoker to the jury. We next consider whether the punitive damages were unconstitutionally excessive and whether the Fourth District properly found that the trial court abused its discretion in denying RJR's motion for remittitur on the punitive award.


         Whether the comparative fault statute applies to Mrs. Schoeff's case requires this Court to interpret the statute. Statutory interpretation is a pure question of law reviewed de novo. See Polite v. State, 973 So.2d 1107, 1111 (Fla. 2007). We review for abuse of discretion the trial court's finding that Mrs. Schoeff's trial conduct prevented her from asserting the intentional tort exception. See Schoeff, 178 So.3d at 492 (quoting R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Hiott, 129 So.3d 473, 475 (Fla. 1st DCA 2014)); Sury, 118 So.3d at 851.

         I. Comparative Fault Statute

         Before analyzing its plain meaning, this Court must determine which version of the comparative fault statute controls. The Fourth District held, and Mrs. Schoeff agrees, that the applicable statute is the 1992 version because it was in effect when the cause of action accrued in 1994. Schoeff, 178 So.3d at 492 n.3 (citing Basel v. McFarland & Sons, Inc., 815 So.2d 687, 691-96 (Fla. 5th DCA 2002)). RJR argues that the proper version of the statute is the 2011 version because the Legislature provided the following:

This act is remedial in nature and applies retroactively. The Legislature finds that the retroactive application of this act does not unconstitutionally impair vested rights. Rather, the law affects only remedies, permitting recovery against all tortfeasors while lessening the ultimate liability of each consistent with this state's statutory comparative fault system, codified in s. 768.81, Florida Statutes.

Ch. 2011-215, § 3, Laws of Fla. (emphasis added). The 2011 version became effective June 23, 2011.

         The Fourth District improperly relied upon Basel to find that the 1994 version was the proper version of the statute. Basel held that the 1999 version of the statute was not retroactive because it included no explicit language regarding retroactivity. Basel, 815 So.2d at 691-96. The 2011 amendment explicitly provided for its retroactive application. The 2011 statute controls.

         A. Plain Meaning of the Comparative Fault Statute

         The goal of statutory interpretation is to identify the Legislature's intent. Crews v. State, 183 So.3d 329, 332 (Fla. 2015). To do so, this Court first consults the plain meaning of the statute's text. W. Fla. Reg'l Med. Ctr., Inc. v. See, 79 So.3d 1, 9 (Fla. 2012). "When the statute is clear and unambiguous, " we use the plain language of the statute and avoid rules of statutory construction to determine the Legislature's intent. Daniels v. Fla. Dept. of Health, 898 So.2d 61, 64 (Fla. 2005); see also QBE Ins. Corp. v. Chalfonte Condo. Apt. Ass'n, 94 So.3d 541 (Fla. 2012).

         The comparative fault statute reduces defendants' liability by the percentage of fault of other culpable parties. § 768.81, Fla. Stat. (2011). The statute provides, "In a negligence action, contributory fault chargeable to the claimant diminishes proportionately the amount awarded as economic and noneconomic damages for an injury attributable to the claimant's contributory fault, but does not bar recovery." § 768.81(2), Fla. Stat. (2011). "Negligence action" is defined as "without limitation, a civil action for damages based upon a theory of negligence, strict liability, products liability, [or] professional malpractice." Id. § 768.81(1)(c). The intentional tort exception is codified in subsection (4) of the statute: "Applicability.-- This section does not apply . . . to any action based upon an intentional tort . . ." Id. § 768.81(4).

         The plain language of the comparative fault statute is unequivocal: the comparative fault statute applies to an enumerated, but not exhaustive, list of negligence claims and "does not apply . . . to any action based upon an intentional tort." Id. This creates confusion for damages in Engle progeny cases because the same injuries-a smoker's illness or death and survivors' damages-are the result of both negligence and intentional torts. Generally, a defendant may not be required to pay twice for the same element of damages. See Dobbs v. Griffith, 70 So.2d 317, 318 (Fla. 1954); Besett v. Basnett, 437 So.2d 172 (Fla. 2d DCA 1983). Compensatory damages in Engle progeny cases cannot be allocated among the intentional tort and simple negligence claims without violating this rule against double damages. Therefore, if the comparative fault statute is applied to compensatory ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.