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R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Prentice

Florida Court of Appeals, First District

October 24, 2019

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, Appellant/Cross-Appellee,
v.
Linda Prentice, as Personal Representative of the Estate of John C. Price, Appellee/Cross-Appellant.

         Not final until disposition of any timely and authorized motion under Fla. R. App. P. 9.330 or 9.331.

          On appeal from the Circuit Court for Duval County. Tyrie W. Boyer, Judge.

          Jeffrey A. Yarbrough, Robert B. Parrish, and David C. Reeves, of Moseley, Prichard, Parrish, Knight & Jones, Jacksonville; Jason T. Burnette, Charles R.A. Morse, Stephanie E. Parker and John M. Walker of Jones Day, New York, NY; Tony A. Fuhrman and Marie A. Borland of Hill, Ward & Henderson, Tampa, for Appellant/Cross-Appellee.

          Celene H. Humphries, Maegen Peek Luka, and Thomas J. Seider of Brannock & Humphries, Tampa; Gregory D. Prysock and Katherine M. Massa of Morgan & Morgan, P.A., Jacksonville; and Keith R. Mitnik of Morgan & Morgan, P.A., Orlando, for Appellee/Cross-Appellant.

          Rowe, J. [1]

         R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (RJR) appeals from a final judgment entered in favor of Linda Prentice, as personal representative of the Estate of John C. Price (the Estate), on her wrongful death claim. RJR raises several grounds for reversal and the Estate raises several issues on cross-appeal. We write only to address RJR's argument that the trial court erred by denying RJR's request for a special jury instruction on conspiracy to commit fraudulent concealment. The trial court's refusal to give the special jury instruction on conspiracy to commit fraudulent concealment was an abuse of discretion because the proposed instruction was a correct statement of the law, was supported by the facts, was necessary for resolving the issues, and the failure to give the instruction was prejudicial.

         Facts

         Price filed an individual Engle[2] lawsuit before his death, alleging that his Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease was caused by his addiction to smoking cigarettes manufactured and marketed by RJR. After Price died, the Estate maintained the suit as a wrongful death action. The Estate alleged causes of action for strict liability, negligence, fraudulent concealment, and conspiracy to commit fraudulent concealment.

         Price began smoking when he was 12 years old. By the time he was 16, Price was smoking a pack a day. Price smoked two to three packs of cigarettes a day for most of his adult life. He did not quit smoking until he was 58, when he was diagnosed with COPD. He died 16 years later, at the age of 74.

         As with other Engle-progeny cases, the Estate presented evidence that major tobacco companies in the United States, including RJR, made fraudulent statements about the hazards of smoking as early as December 4, 1953. Over a fifty-year period, the tobacco companies concealed information about the addictive nature of nicotine and the harmful effects of smoking while engaging in marketing efforts to encourage people to smoke.

         The jury returned a verdict for the Estate on the negligence and strict liability counts. And while the jury found that the major tobacco companies conspired to conceal health information or information about addiction, the jury did not find that RJR's concealment or omission of material information about the health effects and addictive nature of smoking cigarettes was a legal cause of Price's death.

         The jury awarded $6.4 million dollars in compensatory damages, apportioning 60% of the fault for the legal cause of Price's death to Price and 40% to RJR. The jury found that punitive damages were warranted but awarded none.

         Analysis

         We review the failure to give a proposed jury instruction for an abuse of discretion. See R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Jewett, 106 So.3d 465, 467 (Fla. 1st DCA 2012). A trial court abuses its discretion when it does not give a requested instruction that (1) accurately states the law, (2) is supported by the facts of the case, and (3) is necessary for the proper resolution of the issues by the jury-if the requested instruction is not covered by other instructions given to the jury and the failure to give the requested instruction is prejudicial. Id.

         RJR argues that the trial court abused its discretion when it instructed the jury on the count of conspiracy to commit fraudulent concealment. RJR argued that for the Estate to prove its conspiracy claim, it would need to show that Price relied to his detriment on a specific statement that concealed or omitted material information about the health risks of smoking. During the charge conference, RJR requested the following instruction:

The next issue for your determination is whether Mr. Price reasonably relied to his detriment on a statement that concealed or omitted material information regarding the health effects of smoking cigarettes or their addictive nature, and that was made in furtherance of Defendant's agreement to conceal health information or information regarding addiction and, if so, whether such reliance was a legal cause of Mr. Price's COPD and death. In order to be a legal cause of COPD and death, Plaintiff must show that Mr. Price relied on statements by Defendant or any of the other companies involved in the agreement that omitted material information concerning the health effect of cigarettes or their addictive nature or both made at any time during or after December 1953. I hereby instruct you that Plaintiff has made no claim for conspiracy to conceal information regarding smoking and health or addiction before December 1953.
Reliance on a statement made in furtherance of an agreement to conceal is a legal cause of COPD and death if it directly and in natural and continuous sequence produces or contributes substantially to producing such COPD and death so that it can reasonably be said that, but for the reliance on the ...

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