This legal update relates to a recent decision upholding the final judgment entered in Hoce v. R-L Sales, LLC, one of the first e-cig cases to go to trial in the United States. The judgment was the topic of a prior legal update. The First District Court of Appeal in Florida upheld a $2 million judgment against R-L Sales, the retailer of a lithium ion battery that combusted and injured Hoce.
In the underlying case, Hoce brought a strict liability claim against R-L Sales, alleging he was injured when the battery in his e-cig device combusted while in use. After a trial, the jury found R-L Sales 100% at fault for the exploding battery and awarded Hoce $47,800 in total medical expenses and $2 million in pain and suffering.
R-L Sales appealed on two bases: (1) that the trial court should have allowed it to introduce evidence to the jury that Hoce was a methamphetamine user, and (2) that the $2 million non-economic damage award was excessive and should be reduced. Both arguments were rejected, and the appellate court upheld the final judgment. Both arguments were reviewed on an abuse of discretion standard, which is a high bar to overcome for appellants.
At trial, R-L Sales attempted to introduce evidence that Hoce was a meth user, and that his dental disfigurement resulted from tooth decay due to drug abuse, not the subject combustion. The trial court precluded R-L Sales from introducing this evidence to the jury, finding that it was irrelevant and unfairly prejudicial to Hoce. The First District Court of Appeal agreed, finding no abuse of discretion by the trial court. It reasoned, “[a]lthough the fact that [Hoce] already had extensive dental problems was relevant to the jury’s determination of the extent of damages attributable to the e-cigarette explosion, the cause of [his] preexisting dental problems—i.e., whether it was meth use, too many sugary drinks, or simply extremely poor dental hygiene—was not relevant to any issue the jury had to decide.”1 The court continued, “because evidence of illegal drug use is inherently prejudicial, even if the cause of [Hoce]’s preexisting dental problems had some marginal relevance, the probative value of the evidence that [Hoce] was a meth user was substantially outweighed by its prejudicial effect.”2
The First District Court of Appeal also found no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s denial of R-L Sales’ motion for remittitur to reduce the noneconomic damages award.3 The Court found that while the award was substantial, it had adequate support in the record and was not so large as to “shock the judicial conscience”.4
As observed in the prior legal update regarding the Hoce verdict, a number of factors may have contributed to the adverse verdict, including (a) Hoce’s use of an experienced expert compared to R-L Sales’ inexperienced expert who lacked formal training and certain education, (b) Plaintiff’s use of a strict liability theory, and (c) other specifics of the case including an unfriendly jurisdiction and Plaintiff’s pursuit of a substantial pain and suffering award. That said, the appellate court’s decision upholding the verdict demonstrates the challenges of overturning such adverse rulings by a trial court, which generally has wide discretion.
Understanding the Hoce case can assist all parties in the chain of distribution of vape and e-cig products to develop strategies to limit or potentially avoid liability in similar cases.
For more information about how these cases might affect your business and/or current or pending litigation, please contact one of the attorneys on the E-Cigarette/Vape Team.