Eleventh Circuit Reverses Lower Court’s Exclusion of Evidence Showing Plaintiff’s History of Alcohol Abuse

In Thelma Aycock v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., No. 13-14060 (Oct. 16, 2014), defendant R.J. Reynolds Tobacco (Reynolds) appealed the judgment of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. The judgment followed a jury verdict that awarded compensatory damages of $5.9 million to the plaintiff, Thelma Aycock (Thelma). The cause of action was wrongful death. Thelma alleged and the jury found that her husband’s (Richard) lung cancer and death were attributed to his addiction to smoking cigarettes manufactured by Reynolds. On appeal, Reynolds argued that the district court erred in excluding evidence of Richard’s alcohol abuse as it related to his death. The Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court’s judgment and remanded the case for a new trial.

Thelma sued for compensatory and punitive damages under the Florida Wrongful Death Act. Before the trial began, the court granted Thelma’s motion in limine seeking to exclude evidence of Richard’s alcohol consumption. Thelma argued this evidence should be excluded because Richard’s alcohol use was irrelevant to determining what caused his death and its admission would be prejudicial. Richard’s death certificate listed lung cancer as the cause of death, but Reynolds attempted to show there could have been other causes. At trial, the diagnosis and cause of death were hotly debated issues, but Richard’s alcohol use in the context of causation was barred from discussion. The jury found that lung cancer and Richard’s addiction to smoking cigarettes manufactured by Reynolds were legal causes of death.

The Eleventh Circuit reviewed the district court’s evidentiary rulings for a clear abuse of discretion. However, the appellate court was permitted to perform a Rule 403 balancing test ab initio because the issue arose in limine. In order for evidence to be properly excluded under Rule 403, the undue prejudice it causes must substantially outweigh its probative value. Additionally, courts must look at the evidence in the light most favorable to admission.

The Eleventh Circuit held that the evidence of Richard’s alcohol abuse was improperly excluded because it was of high probative value and did not cause a high amount of unfair prejudice. The appellate court also found two burden shifting errors. First, the district court improperly shifted the burden of proof to Reynolds by forcing it to prove that Richard’s death was caused by something other than smoking. Under Florida law, the burden was on Thelma to show that Richard’s addiction to cigarettes “more likely than not” caused his death. The district court also erred in requiring that Reynolds’s testimony meet a reasonable medical certainty standard rather than “more likely than not” standard.

Richard’s alcohol abuse was an essential part of Reynold’s case to show that something other than smoking caused his death. The Eleventh Circuit found that Richard’s alcohol abuse was especially relevant to comparative fault, to the cause of smoking, and to damages. Reynolds introduced evidence suggesting other types of cancer, infection, and inflammation possibly led to Richard’s death. Thelma argued that the exclusion of alcohol abuse was harmless. The Eleventh Circuit disagreed because alcohol evidence made the other possible causes of death more likely and supported the opinion of Reynold’s experts. Reynolds was, therefore, denied the opportunity to present evidence challenging the likelihood of whether Richard died from lung cancer.

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