The largest individual award to a former Florida smoker against the tobacco industry will not stand, a Broward Circuit judge ruled Friday.
Calling the $300 million jury verdict "excessive" and "shocking," Judge Jeffrey Streitfeld said he would determine a lower award later against tobacco giant Philip Morris USA. He gave no indication when he would rule.
The landmark verdict was reached in November for Cindy Naugle, an emphysema patient who quit smoking in 1993.
The jury's decision to award $56.5 million in compensatory damages and $244 million in punitive damages stemmed from anger and went beyond just compensation and punishment, Streitfeld said.
Under state law, judges must reduce jury awards found to be excessive. Streitfeld, who presided over Naugle's three-week trial, said he would determine a proper reduction based on the evidence.
"I am absolutely persuaded there was a passion in this verdict that resulted in an excessive verdict," he said.
Streitfeld suggested the case offered "a lesson" for tobacco attorneys, whom he faulted for putting on a "blame the smoker" defense.
"It didn't work," he said. "It upset the jury."
Naugle, sister of former Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle, testified she could not walk without struggling to breathe and must carry a walkie-talkie to the bathroom in case she needs assistance. The jury assigned Philip Morris 90 percent liability for her medical condition.
Defending the jury's decision, Miami lawyer Richard Rosenthal said an award of $12 million for past pain and suffering was "entirely reasonable."
"They want you to sit as a seventh juror with veto power, and that's improper," he told Streitfeld.
Robert Kelley of Kelley/Uustal in Fort Lauderdale represented Naugle at trial. Rosenthal and Joel Perwin, both solo practitioners, argued to uphold the verdict.
Philip Morris attorney Andrew Brenner of Boies Schiller & Flexner in Miami called the award "a grossly excessive outlier."
The case is among 8,000 pending suits against cigarette manufacturers that were filed after the Florida Supreme Court decertified a statewide class action and invalidated a $145 billion punitive award. The court ruled smokers could sue individually and rely on the original Miami jury's findings that smoking is dangerous and addictive and causes disease.
Given the vast number of pending complaints, punitive damages in each case should be capped at a sustainable amount, argued tobacco attorney Andrew Frey, a partner at Mayer Brown in New York. He said the Naugle jury improperly assigned $244 million in punitive damages based on the estimated profit earned by Philip Morris during the trial.
"That's totally arbitrary," Frey said. "It's disconnected from the conduct. It's disconnected from the need for deterrence."
U.S. courts have struggled to define permissible punitive damages. In its 2003 decision in State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Campbell, the U.S. Supreme Court appeared to cap punitive damages at 10 times the compensatory award in most cases. In cases with substantial compensatory damages, the court has suggested the gap should be narrower.
Florida law caps punitive damages at three times compensatory damages, absent extraordinary circumstances.
When asked what multiple of compensatory damages would be proper for Naugle, Frey suggested a ratio "below one-to-one."
Streitfeld did not say when he would rule but noted he has been considering the matter for months.
"From the moment I read the verdict and took a deep breath, I have considered that verdict and what I should do," he said.