As a kid growing up in Grandview, Mo., Michael Thompson began smoking cigarettes at the age of 13. Thirty-four years later, in 1997, he came down with lung cancer.
In 2000, he filed a personal injury suit in Jackson County Circuit Court against the makers of the cigarettes he smoked. A jury awarded him $1 million. A state appeals court later upheld the verdict.
In 2009, Thompson died of throat cancer. His widow and children then filed a wrongful death action in state court against two of the manufacturers, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Philip Morris USA.
Reynolds and Philip Morris moved the case to federal court, where it was thrown out. The court found that the earlier personal injury judgment barred the wrongful death claims.
On Wednesday, a federal appeals court agreed with that finding. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals cited Missouri’s “one recovery” rule, which bars wrongful death claims if the deceased person received redress for the same wrongful conduct during his lifetime.
Ken McClain, an attorney who represented Thompson in the personal injury suit and Thompson's family in the wrongful death case, says the court’s decision is “disappointing.”
“It’s clearly intellectually dishonest when the (wrongful death) statute provides for things you could never recover in a personal injury action, like funeral expenses,” he says.
McClain says, however, that the family has reached the end of the road and won’t pursue the case further.
The appeals court's ruling comes just a few weeks after a Florida jury ordered R.J. Reynolds to pay the widow of a smoker $23.6 billion. Reynolds called the damages "grossly excessive" and said it would seek to have the verdict thrown out.