Prentice v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

-Summary by Anna Lusk
On March 17th, the Supreme Court of Florida considered what proof is required in a nicotine addiction conspiracy and fraudulent concealment case to prove that a plaintiff relied on information provided by a defendant (tobacco provider). The Court held that a plaintiff must prove reliance on a statement that was made by the defendant or co-conspirator and that the defendant concealed or omitted material information about the health effects or addictiveness of smoking cigarettes.

The Supreme Court details a long procedural history to this case. Plaintiff John Price developed COPD after smoking multiple packs of R.J. Reynolds cigarettes a day for most of his adult life. Price sued RJR on claims of strict liability, negligence, fraudulent concealment, and conspiracy to fraudulently conceal. After Price died, his estate representative, Prentice, maintained the lawsuit as a wrongful death action. Price’s original lawsuit was filed as a class action, along with other nicotine addicts. The Court held that individual class members like Price could bring individual lawsuits to litigate for the specific issues they faced from using nicotine. Those individual lawsuits proved unsuccessful for the plaintiffs. The Court then allowed for plaintiffs to join a singular, class action lawsuit if they met the specific requirements. Price was found to have met these requirements. The jury in this lawsuit found in Prentice’s favor on her claims for strict liability, negligence, and concealment conspiracy. However, they did not award Prentice damages on her fraudulent concealment claim. The tobacco company, RJR, appealed this ruling to pin some fault on Price’s use of nicotine.

This appeal focused on RJR’s challenge to the jury instruction on Prentice’s concealment conspiracy claim. The jury instructions to prove concealment conspiracy were that 1) “the 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 of addictive nature of smoking cigarettes or both;” and 2) that the 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.” For the court to determine if Prentice had met these conspiracy concealment claims, it instructed the jury to determine “whether the conspiracy to withhold health information or information regarding addiction and any acts proven in furtherance of that conspiracy were relied upon by John Price to his detriment.” RJR argued against the Court’s use of these instructions. The First District Court agreed with RJR that the court’s use of this jury instruction was erroneous and prejudicial. The First District concluded that the disputed jury instruction in Prentice’s case was prejudicial error because neither it nor any other instruction informed the jury of the need to find that Price had relied on a statement. The Florida Supreme Court notes that the First District’s decision on the reliance issue conflicts with the decisions of other district courts. Other district courts have held that a plaintiff of this sort need not prove reliance on a statement. It is at this point that the Florida Supreme Court reviews the case at hand.

The Florida Supreme Court holds that to prevail on a fraudulent concealment and concealment conspiracy claim, a plaintiff like the one at hand must prove reliance on a statement that was made by a defendant, and that it concealed or omitted material information about the health effects or addictiveness to smoking cigarettes. The Court further elaborates that it is enough for the plaintiff to prove reliance on statements that, while not necessarily false on their face, are misleading because they conceal or omit other material information. The Court relies on longstanding principles of the common law of fraud to come to this conclusion, as opposed to inventing a new kind of reliance interpretation as the courts before it has.

The sole Dissenter, Justice Labarga, argues that the Supreme Court decision disrupts decades of settled law on cases like the one at hand.