WASHINGTON, DC.— The Washington Legal Foundation (WLF) yesterday urged the U.S. Supreme Court to review (and ultimately overturn) two Florida decisions that prevent the nation’s major cigarette manufacturers from defending themselves against charges that they acted wrongfully in marketing their products.  In its brief urging review of a decision from a Florida state court (Brown) and another from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (Walker), WLF charged that the courts are conducting product liability lawsuits in a manner that violates the federal constitutional rights of defendants to due process of law.

The cases arise in the aftermath of an abortive effort to decide all product liability claims by Florida smokers in a single class-action trial.  The class-wide trial proceeded for several years until the Florida Supreme Court (in its Engle decision) decertified the class in 2006 on the grounds that issues of fact could not be litigated on a class-wide basis; rather, the relevant facts (e.g., did tobacco companies mislead smokers regarding health hazards?) could only by determined on an individualized basis.  But the Florida court also held that smokers bringing future product liability actions on an individualized basis would be permitted to use a finding entered by the jury in the class action: cigarette manufacturers in at least some instances acted negligently in marketing a “defective” product.

Thousands of Florida smokers thereafter filed individual claims against tobacco companies,  hoping to take advantage of the Engle ruling.  In Brown and Walker, the courts determined that as a result of the jury’s verdict in the abortive class action, the Engle defendants are precluded from denying that they acted wrongly in marketing their cigarettes to the individual plaintiffs.  But as the defendants point out, the class-action jury held merely that they had acted wrongly at some unspecified times over the past 50 years.  WLF’s brief argued that under those circumstances, it is a denial of the defendants’ due process rights to refuse to permit them to defend themselves against charges that they acted tortiously toward the individual plaintiff in a later suit.

Following its filing, WLF issued the following statement by Chief Counsel Richard Samp:

“Florida has imposed massive liability on businesses in a series of tort suits without ever requiring the plaintiffs to demonstrate that the defendants acted wrongfully.  The courts explained that they were trying to make cases more manageable.  But a desire for manageability does not justify running roughshod over a defendant’s due process rights.  Only a small fraction of the Engle claims have come to trial, yet liability awards already exceed $450 million.”

WLF is a public interest law firm and policy center that regularly litigates in support of tort reform, to ensure that the costs of unwarranted lawsuits do not drive up costs for all consumers.