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Florida Supreme Court rules that federal law does not implicitly preempt state law tort claims of strict liability and negligence by Engle tobacco litigation progeny plaintiffs

On April 6, 2017, in R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Marotta, No. SC16-218, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that federal law does not implicitly preempt state law tort claims of strict liability and negligence by Engle tobacco litigation progeny plaintiffs. The Florida Supreme Court had previously ruled in Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., 945 So. 2d 1246 (Fla. 2006) that certain findings were entitled to res judicata effect in subsequent Engle class cases: (1) smoking cigarettes causes certain enumerated diseases, including lung cancer; (2) nicotine is addictive; (3) the Engle “defendants placed cigarettes on the market that were defective and unreasonably dangerous”; (4) the Engle defendants “concealed or omitted material information not otherwise known or available knowing that the material was false or misleading or failed to disclose a material fact concerning the health effects or addictive nature of smoking cigarettes or both”; (5) the Engle “defendants agreed to conceal or omit information regarding the health effects of cigarettes or their addictive nature with the intention that smokers and the public would rely on this information to their detriment”; (6) “all of the [Engle] defendants sold or supplied cigarettes that were defective”; (7) “all of the [Engle] defendants sold or supplied cigarettes that, at the time of sale or supply, did not conform to representations of fact made by said defendants”; and (8) “all of the [Engle] defendants were negligent.” However, the Engle Court disapproved the use of these findings relating to intentional infliction of emotional distress, fraud and misrepresentation, and civil conspiracy based on misrepresentation because the nonspecific findings were “inadequate to allow a subsequent jury to consider individual questions of reliance and legal cause.” In Philip Morris USA, Inc. v. Douglas, 110 So. 3d 419, 432 (Fla. 2013), the Court further clarified that the res judicata effect is claim preclusion, not issue preclusion.

Wiith regard to the federal preemption at issue in Marotta, the Florida Supreme Court held that with regard to this sort of preemption, where state law allegedly conflicts with federal law in a manner known as obstacle preemption, there is a strong presumption against preemption, and a high threshold must be met if a state law is to be pre-empted for conflicting with the purposes of a federal Act. The Court concluded that while the U.S. Congress had barred the FDA’s regulation of tobacco products, it had not banned action by the States. Moreover, the Court noted that the majority of state and federal court decisions on this issue have held that Congress only intended to preempt state law to the extent that they relate to labeling or advertising of tobacco products.