(CN) - In a major victory for Big Tobacco, the 11th Circuit barred individuals suing cigarette makers from relying on a jury's findings in a landmark suit against R.J. Reynolds.
Public health laws have come a long way, the opinion notes, since the time when "anyone would walk a mile for a Camel."
"Cigarette smoke once filled movie theaters, college classrooms, and even indoor basketball courts," Judge Gerald Tjoflat wrote for a three-person panel in Atlanta.
The case in question, concerning the death of longtime smoker Faye Graham, represents "progeny" from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Engle, a landmark win against tobacco companies in 1996 that found the cigarette makers negligent and their product unreasonably dangerous.
For the last 20 years, so-called Engle progeny cases have netted almost $150 billion in damages for smokers.
A federal judge in Florida hearing the claims by Graham's widowed husband likewise instructed the jury to give the Engle court findings "the same weight they would have if you had listened to all the evidence and made those findings yourselves."
Such instructions led a jury to award Graham's husband $2.75 million in damages.
With his wife was 70 percent responsible for her death, however, R.J. Reynolds and Phillip Morris faced orders to pay $550,000 and $275,000, respectively.
The 11th Circuit reversed Wednesday, however, after fining that the practice of letting Florida courts rely on the Engle jury findings to sue tobacco companies conflicts with federal regulation of tobacco.
Congress has clearly known about the grave dangers of cigarette smoking for decades, the court found, yet it has expressly forbidden the Food and Drug Administration from banning cigarette sales despite their danger to public health.
"Indeed, regulation of cigarettes rests on the assumption that they will still be sold and that consumers will maintain a 'right to choose to smoke or not to smoke,'" Tjoflat wrote.
Though federal law allows states to enforce duties on cigarette makers to protect its citizens health, and to inform people about the dangers of smoking, Florida "may not enforce a duty, as it has through the Engle jury findings, premised on the theory that all cigarettes are inherently defective and that every cigarette sale is an inherently negligent act," Tjoflat said (emphasis in original).
"So our holding is narrow indeed: it is only these specific, sweeping bases for state tort liability that we conclude frustrate the full purposes and objectives of Congress," the ruling continues.
Jerome Mayer-Cantu of Lieff Cabraser, who represented Graham's husband, did not return a request for comment.
Gregory Katsas, representing the tobacco company for Jones Day, did not return a request for comment either.
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