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Florida First DCA affirms trial court's order granting plaintiff new trial on damages where jury award was substantially below defense's own acknowledgement of damages

On July 24, 2017, in Phillip Morris USA v. Danielson, No. 1D16-234 (Fla. 1st DCA 2017), the Florida First DCA affirmed a trial Court’s order granting the plaintiff a new trial on damages in an Engle progeny tobacco case. The surviving spouse of the decedent was awarded only $25,000 in economic damages, nothing for pain and suffering and $325,000 in punitive damages, notwithstanding the fact that the parties had stipulated to $2.3 million in economic damages and the defense had conceded in closing argument that it would be reasonable to award $250,000-$300,000 in non-economic damages to the surviving spouse and each of the decedent’s children. The trial court granted the plaintiff’s unopposed motion to confirm the jury’s verdict to the stipulation, and ordered a new trial on non-economic damages and punitive damages over the defendant’s objection.

On review, the First DCA noted that a trial court may grant a new trial if the verdict is excessive or inadequate or against the manifest weight of the evidence, or both. Citing Taylor v. Ganas, 443 So. 2d 251, 253 (Fla. 1st DCA 1983), the Court stated that an excessive or inadequate verdict is one that shocks the judicial conscience, or that has been unduly influenced by the jury’s passion or prejudice. The trial court had concluded that the jury was unduly influenced by arguments from defense counsel which allegedly implied that the surviving spouse, who had a medical background, should be faulted for her husband’s smoking, that she did not care enough about him to explain the danger and that she sought to cash in on his death.

While the First DCA affirmed the trial court regarding the new trial on non-economic damages, the Court reversed the trial court’s order granting a new trial on punitive damages. The trial court had granted the new trial on the assumption that the punitive damages award had to be reassessed in light of the potential change in the compensatory damages award. The First DCA disagreed, noting that the Florida Supreme Court has long “disavowed” a strict rule “that punitive damages must bear some reasonable relation to compensatory damages, because the amount of compensation for loss is an entirely separate matter from the amount of punitive damages.” Quoting Arab Termite & Pest Control Inc. v. Jenkins, 409 So. 2d 1039, 1042 (Fla. 1982).