Tobacco company backed in punitive damages fight against cancer death

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a jury decision that would have required R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. to pay $16 million in punitive damages to the family of a woman who died at age 52 of lung cancer.

Justices, in a 5-1 ruling, said the punitive damages award to the estate of Lois Stucky was “excessive.”

The estate went to the Supreme Court in 2021 after the 5th District Court of Appeal overturned a decision by an Orange County jury to award the $16 million. In part, the dispute focused on the discrepancy between the amounts of punitive and compensatory damages that were awarded.

The jury awarded $300,000 in compensatory damages to Stucky’s adult children, an amount that was reduced to $150,000 because of negligence attributed to Stucky.

Compensatory damages are generally related to compensating people for economic losses or injuries, while punitive damages are a form of punishment.

Thursday’s majority opinion, written by Justice Ricky Polston, said state law “requires a reasonable relationship between punitive damages and the number of damages proved and the injury suffered.”

It also said that under the state’s wrongful-death law, a punitive damages award must be denied if it “does not bear a reasonable relation to the damages proved and the injury suffered by the statutory beneficiaries,” or Stucky’s children.

“In this case, because no reasonable trial court could have found that the $16 million punitive damages award bears a reasonable relation to the $150,000 net compensatory damages award and the injury suffered by Ms. Stucky’s survivors, the Fifth District correctly reversed the excessive punitive damages award and remanded (to the circuit court) for further proceedings,” Polston wrote in an opinion joined by Chief Justice Carlos Muniz and Justices Charles Canady, John Couriel and Jamie Grosshans.

Justice Jorge Labarga dissented, while Justice Renatha Francis did not take part in the case.

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