Punitive damages are not limited to triple compensatory damages if a case can be made that the amount is not excessive, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled Wednesday in a smoker’s appeal.
The court rejected Broward Circuit Judge Jeffrey Streitfeld’s justification for cutting a $25 million punitive damages award to $15.7 million based on a $5.24 million compensatory damage award to Connie Buonomo of Hollywood, the widow of Matthew Buonomo.
On another question, the Fourth District sided with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. by ruling Streitfeld erred when he barred the jury from deciding whether Matthew Buonomo relied on company misrepresentations after May 5, 1982.
Buonomo was part of the disbanded Engle class action, which began in Miami in 1994. The so-called Engle progeny plaintiffs must prove they relied to their detriment on tobacco company misrepresentations about the health effects of smoking within 12 years of the Engle lawsuit filing under the statute of repose for fraud, the court said.
“While the record contains evidence that could support a finding of reliance on or after May 5, 1982, the trial court’s ruling precluded a jury determination on the issue and deprived RJR of the defense,” Fourth District Judge W. Matthew Stevenson wrote for the unanimous panel.
On the issue of punitives, Stevenson noted Streitfeld appeared to rely on a 1999 statutory definition that did not apply to this case. Stevenson cited a 1995 version instead stating the court is free to exceed the three-times-compensatory cap if the claimant demonstrates by clear and convincing evidence the award isn’t excessive in light of the facts.
The effect of the ruling is that R.J. Reynolds would get a new jury trial on the sole issue of whether Buonomo relied on its representations after mid-1982.
“An Engle progeny plaintiff still must prove detrimental reliance upon the defendant tobacco company’s misinformation,” Stevenson wrote. If the jury finds for Buonomo on the reliance question, he said, “The trial court is free to reinstate the punitive damages award made by the jury subject to any reduction made by the trial court” within its discretion.
Buonomo was represented by John Uustal and Todd R. McPharlin of Kelley Uustal in Fort Lauderdale and Bard D. Rockenbach of Burlington & Rockenbach in West Palm Beach.
Reynolds was represented by Gregory G. Katsas of Jones Day of Washington, Benjamine Reid and Cristina Alonso of Carlton Fields in Miami and Stephanie E. Parker of Jones Day in Atlanta. Reynolds spokesman Bryan Hatchell said the company does not comment on pending litigation.
Chief Judge Dorian Damoorgian and Judge Burton Conner concurred with Stevenson.
Buonomo died at 80 in 2008 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The trial was in May 2010.