Total State Verdicts: $31,544,307,446
Total Federal Verdicts: $1,162,699,899
Top Sub-Industries: Banks, Telecommunications, Technology, Health Care Equipment, Semiconductors
35 Nuclear Verdicts Against Tobacco Companies Topped by Historic $23 Billion Against RJ Reynolds
Along With Tobacco, Trucking & Automobile Cases Drove Federal/State Nuclear Verdict Gulf
80% of State Court Verdicts Were Ordered in Products Liability Cases
Florida is More Prone to Punitive Damages Awards than Other States
Legal Services Ads in Florida Increased 60% From 2016 to 2020
Litigation Finance-Favorable Jurisdiction
Marathon’s analysis found Florida was the second-highest state for cumulative corporate nuclear verdicts from 2009 to 2022. According to the US Chamber of Commerce, it also ranks among the top 10 in nuclear verdicts per capita. All told, nuclear verdicts in Florida state courts totaled $31.3 billion; its federal district courts, $1.1 billion.
Florida’s second-place ranking was driven by a historic $23 billion verdict against RJ Reynolds Tobacco delivered in Escambia County Circuit Court in 2014, the largest verdict identified across all states from 2009 to 2022. Overall, Marathon’s analysis found that Florida state courts were the location of 35 out of 39 of the largest nuclear verdicts against tobacco companies, totaling $25.2 billion. Though this was mostly driven by state courts, one federal court in Florida, for the Middle District, saw three such verdicts totaling $94 million.
Overall, twenty-one different Florida state courts have issued a nuclear verdict since 2009. The counties with the highest totals include Broward (7.7%, $2.4 billion), Miami-Dade (5.4%, $1.7 billion), Alachua (3.3%, $1.01 billion), and Nassau (3.2%, $1.002 billion).
The Escambia County case, Estate of Johnson v. RJ Reynolds Tobacco, is one of thousands of cases spun from the 1990s class action suit Engle, et. al v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., filed by Florida smokers against tobacco companies. After over a decade of litigation across multiple courts, the Florida Supreme Court decertified the Engle class in 2006, ruling individual plaintiffs could recover if they proved the smoker in each case was addicted to cigarettes. This led to Florida becoming the “center of the tobacco litigation universe,” according to the Tampa Bay Times, and largely drove the gulf between its state and federal court nuclear verdicts, as well as between products liability and all other case topics.
The Florida Supreme Court ruling opened the door to potential fraud. In 2017, two Jacksonville attorneys were ordered to forfeit more than $9 million by a panel of federal judges who said they filed at least 1,250 frivolous cases against tobacco companies. The order said those attorneys filed claims in 2008 on behalf of hundreds of people who had not authorized them to do so, people who had never smoked, and more than 500 of which were dead.
In its 2006 class decertification ruling, the Florida Supreme Court notably let stand a prior jury’s findings that cigarettes are defective, dangerous, and cause disease, and that Big Tobacco was negligent, meaning those issues did not have to be re-litigated in future lawsuits, therefore creating a friendlier environment for potential litigants. Then, in a May 2022 ruling, the court said plaintiffs must show smokers relied on misleading information from cigarette makers to prevail on claims over smoking-related illnesses, which will likely make things harder for plaintiffs suing tobacco companies.
In late 2021 and through 2022, corporate nuclear verdicts in Florida have been driven by bellwether federal products liability lawsuits filed against 3M. These cases pertain allegations that defective earplugs manufactured by the company led to hearing loss and tinnitus. Marathon’s analysis found that four cases during this time – all filed in federal court, for Florida’s Northern District – totaled $260 million in nuclear verdicts..
Motor Tort Cases
In Florida, where motor tort cases have a threshold requiring a more serious injury, jury verdicts are much higher than the national average. Marathon’s analysis found that together, trucking and automobile defendants were subject to $2.3 billion in nuclear verdicts overall in Florida, across only ten cases. Several of the top motor cases filed in the state’s courts illustrate the extraordinary size of these verdicts, including $1 billion in Dzion v. AJD Business Services (2021) ordered in Nassau County Circuit Court; a $844 million verdict in Estate of Blaikie v. Auto America Automotive Corp. (2015), in Broward County Circuit Court; and a $154 million verdict in Klix v. American Taxi, Inc. (2017) in Volusia County Circuit Court.
Only two nuclear verdicts against automobile or trucking companies passed through Florida federal courts during the examined period. Those were not related to accidents, but rather intellectual property (Pods Enterprises, Inc. v. U-Haul International) and fraud (Carnival Corp. v. Rolls-Royce PLC) disputes.
Letters of Protection & “Bad Faith” Lawsuits
According to the American Tort Reform Foundation, plaintiffs’ lawyers in Florida use “letters of protection” to inflate medical expenses for the purpose of lawsuits. Under state law, jurors learn the amount of initially invoiced medical expenses, which can be up to three times the amount ultimately accepted by a health care provider as full payment. The ATR Foundation argues letters of protection used by personal injury lawyers curtail the ability of judges to adjust verdicts to reflect the actual amount of medical expenses accepted as payment.
The group also argues that bad faith lawsuits targeting insurers are “fertile ground” for trial lawyers in the state – an issue that the Florida legislature has not addressed.
Sky-High Punitive Damages
Florida is more prone to punitive damage awards than other states, according to the US Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber’s analysis of nuclear verdicts from 2010 to 2019 found 40% of Florida’s total included a punitive damage element, compared to 26% nationally. While Florida law limits punitive awards in most cases to no more than three times the amount of compensatory damages, in cases where the defendant knew the injurious activity was dangerous, punitive awards can reach four times the compensatory amount.
One case identified by Marathon exemplifies this trend. In August 2021, a jury in Nassau County Circuit Court awarded damages in a wrongful death matter (Dzion v. AJD Business Services) of over $1 billion after just five days of testimony and four hours of deliberation. Punitive damages accounted for $900 million of the award. This case also exemplifies the “reptile theory” trial strategy, in which plaintiffs’ lawyers attempt to use fear and anger to make a jury intensely dislike a defendant.
Legal Services Advertising
According to the ATR Foundation and Kantar, between 2016 and 2020, spending on local advertisements for legal services and/or soliciting legal claims in Florida increased by 53.09%, while the quantity of ads increased by 61.19%. Florida is also ranked among the top five states with the most TV legal services ads between 2017 and 2021.
Litigation Finance-Favorable Jurisdiction
Florida has been identified as among the top four most attractive states for investing in litigation by the American Transportation Research Institute. The state does not regulate litigation financing and it is unlikely this will change in the near future, according to the ATRI.
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Corporate Verdicts Go Thermonuclear
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