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Supreme court refuses tobacco firm appeal in smoker case

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court said on Monday it will not hear an appeal by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co in a Florida case in which it was ordered to pay $28.3 million to a woman whose husband died of lung cancer after decades of smoking its cigarettes.

The justices refused an appeal by the Reynolds American Inc unit, which argued that its constitutional due process rights had been violated and that the issue could affect thousands of pending cases in Florida against tobacco companies.

In 2009, a state trial court in Pensacola, Florida, ordered Reynolds to pay more than $3.3 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages to Mathilde Martin.

Her husband, Benny Martin, died in 1995 of lung cancer that she blamed on his long-time smoking of Reynolds' Lucky Strike cigarettes.

The jury found that Reynolds was 66 percent responsible for his death and that Martin, who started smoking in the 1940s before cigarette packages had health warnings, was 34 percent responsible.

The lawsuit stemmed from the so-called "Engle progeny" cases filed against tobacco companies by sick Florida smokers or their relatives. A class-action lawsuit filed in 1994 by a pediatrician, the late Dr. Howard Engle, produced a $145 billion judgment against cigarette makers six years later.

The Florida Supreme Court overturned the Engle award in 2006 and ruled that the state's smokers could not sue as a class.

But it allowed them to sue individually and upheld the trial jury's findings that smoking causes disease, that nicotine is addictive, that cigarettes are defective and dangerous, and that tobacco companies concealed the health effects of smoking.

In its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, R.J. Reynolds argued the state court in the Martin case precluded litigation of issues that had not been necessarily decided during the Engle proceedings, violating its due process rights.

The tobacco companies have been ordered to pay more than $375 million in 60 of the cases arising from the Engle litigation, Reynolds said. Trial dates have been set for 75 more suits for this year.

The Supreme Court case is R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co v. Mathilde Martin, No. 11-754.

(Reporting By James Vicini; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick)

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