Harris v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Case No. 3:09-cv-13482

CourtUnited States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Florida
Decision Date15 December 2014
Docket NumberCase No. 3:09-cv-13482
PartiesPATRICIA HARRIS, as Personal Representative of the Estate of GERALD HARRIS, Plaintiff, v. R.J. REYNOLDS TOBACCO COMPANY, et al., Defendants.

PATRICIA HARRIS, as Personal Representative of the Estate of GERALD HARRIS, Plaintiff,
R.J. REYNOLDS TOBACCO COMPANY, et al., Defendants.

Case No. 3:09-cv-13482


December 15, 2014



This matter is before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Judgment in Accordance with the Jury's Verdict and Incorporated Memorandum of Law ("Defs.' Mot.") (ECF No. 157), Plaintiff's Opposition to Defendants' Motion for Judgment in Accordance with the Jury's Verdict and Incorporated Memorandum of Law ("Pl.'s Resp.") (ECF No. 170), and Defendant's Reply in Support of Their Motion for Judgment in Accordance with the Jury's Verdict ("Defs.' Reply") (ECF No. 173). For the reasons that follow, the Court DENIES Defendants' motion.

I. Background

This Engle-progeny action1 seeking compensatory and punitive damages was brought by Plaintiff Patricia Harris ("Mrs. Harris") against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, Philip Morris USA, Inc., and Lorillard Tobacco Company (collectively, "Tobacco"). Compl. 2, ECF No. 5. Mrs. Harris asserted that her late husband, Gerald Harris ("Mr. Harris"), is a member of the

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Engle-class by virtue of his addiction to the nicotine in cigarettes, which Mrs. Harris claimed was a legal cause of Mr. Harris' coronary heart disease ("CHD") and oral cavity cancer ("OCC").2 Joint Pretrial Stat. 2, ECF No. 46. Prior to trial, Tobacco stipulated that Mr. Harris' CHD "manifested" on or before November 21, 1996 - a date that, as discussed more fully below, carries great import in Engle-progeny claims. See Joint Pretrial Stat. 51, ECF No. 46; Trial Tr. vol. 12, 179-80, ECF No. 163.

This case was eventually brought to trial by jury before the undersigned on July 22, 2014. Trial Tr. vol. 3. 9, July 22, 2014, ECF No. 159. In crafting the jury charge and verdict form during trial, the Court was faced with the dilemma of whether or not, given the above-mentioned stipulation, a factual dispute existed as to the class requirement of disease "manifestation." Trial. Tr. vol. 12, 180, ECF No. 163. Tobacco's position, conveyed both by counsels' argument at trial and by written submission, was that a factual dispute continued to exist because Engle-class membership requires that the class qualifying disease (i.e. the disease that manifests for Engle purposes on or before November 21, 1996), be the same disease for which "addiction-causation" is found. Trial Tr. vol. 12, 179-82, ECF No. 163; Trial Tr. vol. 15, 38, ECF No. 165; Defs.' Object. Court's Draft Jury Inst. Verdict Forms 36, ECF No. 121. Mrs. Harris took a contrary position on the issue at trial, and her proposed verdict form did not contemplate the manifestation date being at issue in front of the jury. See Trial Tr. vol. 12, 180, ECF No. 163; Joint Pretrial Stat, Ex. K, ECF No. 46.

After discussing the question with counsel at numerous points in the trial, mindful of the Court's duty to accurately instruct the jury on the applicable law, and realizing that such an important and complex legal issue was unlikely to be adequately addressed on the eve of closing

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argument, the Court decided to instruct the jury on its interpretation of what Engle requires and preserve the jury's verdict for post-trial determination of the issue. Trial Tr. vol. 15, 38, ECF No. 165. In other words, the jury was permitted to continue to answer the verdict form regardless of whether the disease that fulfilled the timely manifestation requirement was the same as the disease for which addiction-causation was found. Jury Redacted Verdict, ECF No. 143 ("Regardless of how you answered Question 2, please proceed to Question 3."). This approach was not only the most prudent course of action but also one that reflected the Court's belief that the manifestation requirement is one which merely opens the door to class membership. Trial Tr. vol. 12, 182, ECF No. 163. After considering the parties' post-trial briefing on the issue, the Court affirms this interpretation, explains its reasons for the same, and concludes that Tobacco's motion (ECF No. 157) is DENIED.

II. Analysis

This Court has a duty to instruct the jury and craft its verdict form in a way that accurately reflects the pertinent substantive law. See, e.g., McNely v. Ocala Star-Banner Corp., 99 F.3d 1068, 1072 (11th Cir. 1996); McElroy by McElroy v. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., 894 F.2d 1504, 1509 (11th Cir. 1990). Where the highest court—in this case, the Florida Supreme Court—has spoken on a topic, this Court must follow its rule, turning to intermediate state courts in the absence of its guidance unless persuasive evidence exists that the Supreme Court would rule otherwise. See, e.g., Molinos Valle Del Cibao, C. por A. v. Lama, 633 F.3d 1330, 1348 (11th Cir. 2011) (emphasis added); Bravo v. United States, 577 F.3d 1324, 1326 (11th Cir. 2009)(quoting King v. Order of United Commercial Travelers of Am., 333 U.S. 153, 157-158 (1948)). Accordingly, it is the Florida Supreme Court's holdings in Engle v. Liggett Grp., Inc ("Engle III") and its progeny that primarily govern this dispute. 945 So. 2d 1246 (Fla. 2006).

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The holding of a case is comprised both of the result of the case and those portions of the opinion essential to that result.3 Pell v. State, 122 So. 110, 112 (Fla. 1929); State ex rel Biscayne Kennel Club v. Board of Business Reg. of Dep't of Business Reg., 276 So. 2d 823, 826 (Fla. 1973) (stating that obiter dictum "was not essential to the decision of that court and is without force as precedent"); United States v. Kaley, 579 F.3d 1246, 1253 n.10 (11th Cir. 2009) (quoting Seminole Tribe of Fla. v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 67 (1996)); Horowitch v. Diamond Aircraft Indus., Inc., 645 F.3d 1254, 1258 (11th Cir. 2011) certified question answered, 107 So. 3d 362 (Fla. 2013). It follows that the holding in Engle III regarding the application of the manifestation requirement to class representative Angie Delia Vecchia ("Delia Vecchia") is binding on this Court. See 945 So. 2d at 1276; see also Hoffman v. Jones, 280 So. 2d 431, 434 (Fla. 1973) (commenting on the controlling and superior nature of the court's binding precedent).

Engle III defined the contours of an Engle-progeny action, "allow[ing] members of the decertified class to pick up litigation of the approved six causes of action right where the class left off." Philip Morris USA, Inc. v. Douglas, 110 So. 3d 419, 431-32 (Fla.) cert. denied, 134 S. Ct. 332 (2013) (citing Engle III, 945 So.2d at 1269). Engle III's treatment of the original class representatives has, therefore, unsurprisingly, been commonly referred to as an authoritative source of law in Engle-progeny actions. E.g., Douglas, 110 So.3d at 429, citing with approval R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Martin, 53 So.3d 1060, 1069 (Fla. 1st DCA 2010), rev. denied, 67 So.3d 1050 (Fla. 2011), cert. denied, — U.S. —, 132 S.Ct. 1794 (2012) (applying Phase I jury findings against one of the companies named by class representatives in the original Engle litigation); R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Ciccone, 123 So. 3d 604, 614 (Fla. 4th DCA 2013) review granted, 147 So. 3d 526 (Fla. 2014) ("In reaching this conclusion, we are guided by the

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Supreme Court's treatment of one of the Engle class representatives, Angie Delia Vecchia."); Frazier v. Philip Morris USA Inc., 89 So. 3d 937, 945 (Fla. 3d DCA 2012) (defining when an Engle disease manifests for statute of limitation purposes); Bishop ex rel. Estate of Ramsay v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 96 So. 3d 464, 468 (Fla. 5th DCA 2012) (turning to Engle III's treatment of class representatives in attempting to discern the geographical components of "manifestation"); Rey v. Philip Morris, Inc., 75 So.3d 378, 381 (Fla. 3d DCA 2011) (interpreting Engle III's treatment, or lack thereof, of class representatives in reaching its holding on brand-usage limitation)). This is particularly true of Engle III's manifestation requirement for class membership, the substance and form of which stem directly from the language of the Court's opinion. See Engle III, 945 So.2d at 1275; Ciccone, 123 So.3d at 614; Bishop, 96 So. 3d at 468; Berger v. Philip Morris USA Inc., No. 3:09-CV-14157, 2014 WL 4783219, at *5 (M.D. Fla. Sept. 24, 2014).

Class representative Delia Vecchia's treatment under the manifestation requirement controls Mrs. Harris' rights and obligations in the instant case because she ultimately stands in the class representatives' shoes as a progeny plaintiff. See Douglas, 110 So.3d at 432, 436 (stressing that the causes of action and parties in Engle-progeny trials are the same as in the original Engle trial) (...

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