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Death Cases
Products Liability Law
A Look at Florida’s Recent Supreme Court Decision on Punitive Damages in Wrongful
By Dick Caldwell and Brittney Polo
 In a recent 5-1 decision, the Florida Supreme Court struck down a $16 million punitive damages award as excessive. Drawing attention from around the country, the recent opinion confirms that under both federal and state law, the punitive damages in the tobacco case were excessive when compensatory damages were merely $150,000. Under Florida Statute 768.73, punitive damages greater than a 3:1 ratio is presumed invalid unless the facts and circumstances give rise to a reason to exceed that amount. Further, Florida Statute 768.74 delineates five specific criteria courts can consider when deciding whether damages are excessive. Namely, the statute clearly states the amount of damages be related to both the compensatory damages and the injury.
  Dick Caldwell
Underlying & Procedural History
   In Coates v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. (RJR), decedent Lois Stucky’s sister Brinda Coates brought suit as personal representative on behalf of her sister after she died of cigarette-related lung cancer. Out of the four causes of action Coates brought, she was only successful on her strict liability count. The jury awarded decedent’s three adult children $100,000 each for loss of parental companionship, instruction, and guidance from their mental pain and suffering because of losing their parent. After taking into account decedent’s 50% comparative negligence, the total remaining compensatory amount was $150,000. There were no surviving spouses named. After the jury awarded $16 million in punitive damages, RJR filed a motion for remittitur or a new trial.
 Brittney Polo
The trial court denied RJR’s motion and they appealed. On appeal, the Fifth District Court of Appeal (“Fifth DCA”) reversed and remanded the case after concluding the punitive damages were excessive under both state as well as federal law. After rephrasing the question, the Fifth DCA certified it as a matter of public importance to the Florida Supreme Court.
 The Florida Supreme Court looked at three factors in affirming the Fifth DCA’s decisions. First, Florida Statute §768.74(5)(d), requires a punitive damages award to have a “reasonable relation to the amount of damages provided and the injury suffered.” Here, Coates’ compensatory damages, after reduction, were $150,000, so

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