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Engle jury awards $29 million in damages against Reynolds
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Engle jury awards $29 million in damages against Reynolds

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A Florida jury Tuesday handed R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. compensatory and punitive damages totaling nearly $29 million in one of the largest Engle plaintiff victories in recent years.

The jury found in favor of the widower of Elaine Konzelman, who died in 2010 at age 79 after suffering from chronic respiratory disease.

Engle progeny lawsuits sprang from a decision in 2006 by the Florida Supreme Court that decertified a $145 billion class-action lawsuit initially filed by Howard Engle. That ruling limits former class members to filing individual lawsuits stating that cigarettes caused their respective illnesses.

According to Courtroom Video Network, Elaine Konzelman began smoking at age 15 and smoked one to two packs a day for 40 years.

Attorneys for her husband, Alan, employed a familiar tactic in the Engle cases of claiming that Reynolds had conspired for decades to hide or downplay the risk from smoking cigarettes.

The jury awarded Alan Konzelman $8.8 million in compensatory damages and $20 million in punitive damages. The network said Konzelman’s attorney had asked for $5.5 million in compensatory damages and $14 million in punitive damages.

The gap between the amounts requested and awarded can be pivotal upon a potential Reynolds appeal of the awards.

Reynolds spokesman David Howard cited Wednesday the company’s policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

There have been several examples, most notably in the case of Robinson vs. Reynolds from 2014, in which an appeals judge will reduce, sometimes sharply, a jury’s compensatory or punitive award.

In July 2014, an Escambia Court jury awarded Cynthia Robinson, the widow of Michael Johnson Sr., one of the largest punitive-damages awards in U.S. corporate and legal history at $23.6 billion even though the jury determined Johnson was 30 percent responsible for his illness.

In January 2015, a Florida Circuit Court judge drastically reduced the punitive damages to $16.9 million, the same as the compensatory damages.

“That award is admittedly and clearly constitutionally excessive,” Circuit Court Judge Ferry Ferrell said. He said awarding an equal amount in compensatory and punitive damages “is reasonable and just.”

Reynolds’ appeal of the compensatory and punitive damages in the Robinson case remains under appeal.

In January, a Florida appeals court eliminated a combined $54.9 million in punitive damages facing four tobacco manufacturers, citing foremost errors made in jury instructions.

The Fourth District appellate judges ordered a new trial in two phases of the Engle progeny case involving the late Johnnie Calloway and Reynolds Tobacco, Philip Morris USA, Lorillard, and Liggett Group LLC.

Reynolds disclosed in its third-quarter report for fiscal 2016 that as of Sept. 30, it faces $196.1 million in compensatory damages and $197.4 million in punitive damages in Engle cases under appeal.

Of the 56 jury verdicts listed, only seven have a larger compensatory award than the Konzelman verdict and only three have a larger punitive award.

Of the 11 Engle cases with verdicts during the third quarter, five were decided in favor of the plaintiffs, four in favor of Reynolds and two were declared as mistrials.

rcraver@wsjournal.com (336) 727-7376 @rcraverWSJ

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