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Florida Supreme Court Upholds $6.26 Million Jury Verdict against Cigarette Manufacturer in Fraudulent Concealment Case – Hess v. Philip Morris USA, Inc.

cigaretteCivil lawsuits involving personal injuries are subject to a time limit, or “statute of limitations,” for filing. This time period usually begins to run on the date that a person is injured or killed due to the negligent, reckless, or intentional conduct of another person or a business. Some actions are also subject to a “statute of repose,” which may place additional time restrictions on the filing of a lawsuit. The applicability of the statute of repose for fraud was at issue in the recent case of Hess v. Philip Morris USA, Inc.

Facts of the Case

The plaintiff was the widow of a man who smoked cigarettes for over 40 years. He smoked only filtered cigarettes, mostly Benson & Hedges 100s, since he believed the defendant cigarette manufacturer’s claims that filters “caught all the bad stuff.” Although he reduced his smoking and attempted to quit, he was never able to completely stop smoking cigarettes and eventually succumbed to lung cancer. The widow filed suit, asserting claims of strict liability, fraudulent concealment, negligence, and conspiracy to commit fraud.

With regard to the fraudulent concealment portion of her complaint, the widow averred that the manufacturer failed to disclose information concerning the addictive nature of cigarettes and the health problems associated with them. As an affirmative defense, the manufacturer asserted that the widow’s claims were barred by the 12-year Florida statute of repose for fraud claims.

The Trial

The case was tried in two phases. The first part of the case was to determine whether the factual prerequisites for participation in the Engle v. RJ Reynolds Tobacco class existed. The second phase pertained to compensatory damages, comparative fault, and punitive damages. In the first phase of the trial, the jury determined that the decedent was addicted to cigarettes containing nicotine and that such addiction was a legal cause of his death. In the second phase, the jury found that the manufacturer was partially responsible for the man’s death and awarded the widow both compensatory and punitive damages.

The Issue on Appeal

Was the widow’s fraudulent concealment claim barred under the Florida Statute of Repose for fraud claims (Flo. Stat. sect. 95.031(2)) because the jury did not find evidence of the smoker’s reliance within the statute of repose period?

The Decision on Appeal

On appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, the court answered the issue in the negative, holding that it was the manufacturer’s last act or omission that triggered the fraud statute of repose. The court thus quashed a lower appellate court’s decision to the contrary, approved certain other intermediate court opinions in similar cases, and reinstated the jury verdict against the manufacturer. In so holding, the court noted that the widow had presented evidence of the manufacturer’s fraudulent concealment during the repose period such that the manufacturer could not rely upon the statute to disturb the jury’s verdict.

To Speak to a South Florida Product Liability Lawyer

If you or someone in your family has been seriously injured or killed as a result of a poorly designed or defective product, you might be wondering whether you have a case against the seller or manufacturer of the product. The law firm of Cohn & Smith will be glad to review your case at no charge. To schedule an appointment, call us today at (954)431-8100. We are currently accepting cases in the Fort Lauderdale area, including North Dade County, Pembroke Pines, and Pompano Beach.

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