Avera & Smith Wins Florida Supreme Court Tobacco Ruling

GAINESVILLE, FL; April 7, 2016 – The Florida Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Avera & Smith client Lucille Soffer in a case against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company that will have significant implications for other Engle progeny cases statewide.

In the ruling, the Supreme Court determined that there is “no legal or principled basis for denying Engle progeny plaintiffs the right to pursue punitive damages on all properly pled counts.” As a result, Avera & Smith will litigate the matter of punitive damages in the case before the Eighth Judicial Circuit of Florida, perhaps later this year. The Supreme Court ruling reversed a First District Court of Appeal decision in 2012 that affirmed the compensatory damages verdict in the case, but found that the plaintiff was not entitled to seek punitive damages on the unintentional tort claims for negligence and strict liability.

“This is both an important decision on behalf of Maurice Soffer and his widow, Lucille, and for many other families involved in Engle progeny cases against Big Tobacco,” said Mark Avera, a partner of the Gainesville-based Avera & Smith law firm. “We are extremely motivated to see that justice is done in this case, particularly given the courage of Lucille in pursuing the appeal, and it’s gratifying to know that many other plaintiffs will have the opportunity to pursue punitive damages on their unintentional tort claims.”

Avera & Smith was retained to try this case in 2011 by Mrs. Soffer and the law firm of Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley, based on Avera & Smith’s experience and success with tobacco cases and successful outcomes in a wide range of other plaintiffs’ cases. The Soffer case is being litigated by Avera & Smith Partners Mark Avera, Rod Smith and Dawn Vallejos-Nichols.

Maurice Soffer died in May of 1992 from lung cancer caused by smoking. Pursuant to the Florida Supreme Court’s holding in Engle v. Liggett Group, Inc., 945 So.2d 1246 (Fla. 2006), Mrs. Soffer brought a wrongful death action on behalf of herself and her two minor children against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company alleging negligence, strict liability, fraud by concealment, and conspiracy to commit fraud. The jury found for the Soffers on the negligence and strict liability counts, but the trial court did not permit the jury to consider entitlement to punitive damages on those counts. Despite great personal sacrifice, Mrs. Soffer fought that decision in the appellate courts of Florida for nearly five years before being vindicated by the Florida Supreme Court.