Graham v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., No. 13-14590 (11th Cir. 2015)Annotate this Case
In 1996, a Florida District Court of Appeal approved certification of a class-action lawsuit originating in the Circuit Court of Dade County that encompassed an estimated 700,000 Floridians who brought state-law damages claims against the major American tobacco companies for medical conditions, including cancer, "caused by their addiction to cigarettes that contain nicotine." The Florida Supreme Court then decertified the class but held that the jury findings would nonetheless have "res judicata effect" in cases thereafter brought against one or more of the tobacco companies by a former class member. Here, a member of that now-decertified class, successfully advanced strict-liability and negligence claims that trace their roots to the pre-decertified class' jury findings. Over the defendants' objection, the District Court instructed the jury that "you must apply certain findings made by the [class action] court and they must carry the same weight they would have if you had listened to all the evidence and made those findings yourselves." When the jury found in favor of the plaintiff on both claims, the defendants renewed their motion for a judgment as a matter of law, contending, among other things, that federal law preempted the jury’s imposition of tort liability as based on the class-action jury findings. The District Court denied the motion, and the defendants appealed. The Eleventh Circuit reversed: "the State of Florida may ordinarily enforce duties on cigarette manufacturers in a bid to protect the health, safety, and welfare of its citizens. But it may not enforce a duty, as it has through the [class-action] jury findings, premised on the theory that all cigarettes are inherently defective and that every cigarette sale is an inherently negligent act. So our holding is narrow indeed: it is only these specific, sweeping bases for state tort liability that we conclude frustrate the full purposes and objectives of Congress. As a result, [plaintiff's class-action]-progeny strict-liability and negligence claims are preempted, and we must reverse the District Court’s denial of judgment as a matter of law."