September 8, 1999
TALLAHASSEE — On Friday, Sept. 3, 1999, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the tobacco companies’ appeal of Circuit Court Judge Robert Kaye’s order instructing the jury to determine a total, one-time punitive damage award for the entire class in the tobacco class action, Howard A. Engle, M.D., et al. v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, et al. Associated Industries of Florida (AIF), which filed an amicus curiae brief, applauded the ruling.
"The ruling upholds the central principle of the civil justice system, which is to find a fair resolution to disputes between two parties," said Jon L. Shebel, AIF’s president & CEO. "Judge Kaye’s order followed the principle, endorsed by the plaintiff lawyer bar, that the civil justice system existed to put money into the hands of plaintiffs and their attorneys, regardless of liability or injury."
As it stood, Judge Kaye’s order would have instructed the jury to determine a punitive damage award for the entire class in the Engle case on a dollar-amount basis, before any compensatory damages had been awarded. This deviates from the procedure devised by the Florida Supreme Court that delays determination of punitive damages until compensatory damages have been decided.
"Punitive damages are supposed to punish the defendant for the harm it caused," said Shebel. "How can a jury decide the punishment before it figures out the severity of the offense? But that’s what the order would have forced them to do and it would have been bad news for any Florida defendant."
According to Randy Miller, AIF’s senior executive vice president & COO, the Third District’s ruling overturning the order recognized that defendants also have rights in the civil justice system. "Judge Kaye justified his order in the name of efficiency. But it was only efficient for the plaintiffs’ lawyers because it made it easier for them to collect a lot of money in a short amount of time with a minimum amount of effort."
Miller added, "Efficiency is great, except when it trumps justice."