This is a decision awarding in excess of $9,000,000 in sanctions against two law firms that filed 1250 frivolous “Engle Progeny” product liability actions. Engle Progeny cases are injury lawsuits against tobacco companies. The sanctions were awarded pursuant to Rule 11 and 28 U.S.C. Section 1927.
The first award was of Rule 11 sanctions for 588 complaints filed for litigants who were deceased. The explanation:
The complaints filed in the 588 Actions were objectively frivolous. As the Eleventh Circuit observed, “any lawyer worth his salt knows [that] a dead person cannot maintain a personal injury claim.” In re Engle Cases, 767 F.3d at 1086-87. The complaints listing the 588 Pre-Deceased Plaintiffs alleged only a personal injury action— using the present or future tense in referring to the “Smoking Plaintiffs,” and asserting that they “have and will suffer” as a result of their disease. (E.g., Edwin Moody et al. v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Case No. 3:08-cv-155-J-32HTS, Doc. 2, Complaint at ¶ 1.10). Nowhere did the complaints suggest that the smoker had died, and nowhere did they assert an alternative wrongful death or survival action. To the contrary, the concluding allegation in each complaint stated that each plaintiff’s injuries “are permanent and continuing and as such will be suffered into the future.” (E.g., id. at ¶ 11.1). These allegations were demonstrably false.
The complaints in the 588 Actions were also frivolous because Counsel lacked authorization to file or maintain them. “Perhaps the most basic factual contentions implicit in a complaint are that the plaintiff consents to the filing of suit and prays for the relief requested.” In re Deep Vein Thrombosis, No. MDL-04-1606 VRW, 2008 WL 2568269, at *1 (N.D. Cal. Jun. 24, 2008). The dead plaintiffs obviously could not have authorized Counsel to bring lawsuits on their behalf. Nor did Counsel have authorization from the Pre-Deceased Plaintiffs’ estates or their survivors because Counsel pled the complaints as personal injury actions on behalf of the Pre-Deceased Plaintiffs themselves. Therefore, “the most basic factual contention implicit” in the 588 personal injury complaints, i.e., that the plaintiff authorized and prayed for the relief requested, was untrue.
The court also awarded Section 1927 Sanctions for claims from nonsmokers and plaintiffs who did not live in Florida.
In the cases discussed below, the Court determines that Counsel multiplied the proceedings unreasonably and vexatiously by maintaining frivolous complaints in bad faith. Between 2011 and 2013, the Court learned that Counsel had filed dozens of Frivolous Actions (in addition to the 588 Actions). Counsel brought these Frivolous Actions without authorization or on behalf of non-smokers, people who never lived in Florida, and plaintiffs with previously adjudicated claims. The fatal defects in these actions surfaced not through voluntary disclosures from Counsel, but through alerts from Defendants, the hard work of the Temporary Special Master, and from the returned Court Questionnaires. Before the Court Questionnaire process, Counsel vigorously opposed any suggestion that someone should interview or question the plaintiffs. Counsel’s intransigence forced the Court to order Wilner to mail the Court Questionnaires to 2,661 plaintiffs and to have the Temporary Special Master review the results. The questionnaire process was time-consuming but necessary. It accomplished what Counsel would not: the identification of hundreds of frivolous cases, and the segregation of viable from non-viable claims.
In some of these cases, Counsel knew or must have known that a fundamental defect existed. As to others, Counsel acted with reckless indifference. Counsel insisted on maintaining cases without having bothered to obtain the plaintiff’s authorization, without having any basis for asserting that the plaintiff was even a smoker, and without knowing whether the alleged smoker ever lived in Florida (as required by Engle III). Moreover, Counsel’s resistance to the questionnaires and false assurances appeared calculated to prevent the discovery of such frivolous cases. At the very least, counsel’s behavior “grossly deviate[d] from reasonable conduct.” Amlong, 500 F.3d at 1240.
Counsel’s actions demonstrated a pattern of obfuscation and deception, which frustrated the Court’s efforts to rid the Engle Docket of frivolous cases and to promptly and fairly resolve the cases that had merit. Counsel’s maintenance of frivolous suits forced the Court to expend valuable resources—in terms of time, money, and manpower—to cope with the swollen Engle Docket. It also delayed the resolution of meritorious claims. As a result, sanctions are appropriate for the “excess costs” and “expenses . . . incurred because of [counsel’s] conduct.” 28 U.S.C. § 1927.
The court awarded a total of $9,164,404.12 against the two law firms that maintained the frivolous lawsuits.