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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA) – A divided South Florida appeals court Wednesday upheld a verdict that calls for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. to pay $14.7 million to the wife and daughter of a man who died at age 56 of lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

In a 2-1 decision, a panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal rejected arguments that the verdict was excessive and that a plaintiffs’ attorney made improper comments during closing arguments.

A jury awarded $15 million to the wife of smoker Andrew Schleider and $6 million to his adult daughter. The verdict, however, was reduced by 30 percent because Schleider was found to be that much at fault.

With the reduction, his wife, Diane Schleider, was awarded $10.5 million, while their daughter, Suzanne LeMehaute, was awarded $4.2 million, the ruling said.

During closing arguments, the plaintiffs’ attorney made a series of comments about deaths caused by smoking — including that 450,000 deaths a year equate to three plane crashes each day. R.J. Reynolds contended the arguments were improper, but the court majority declined to toss out the verdict.

“While we do not condone the closing argument comments to which R.J. Reynolds objected, we conclude that the complained-of comments fall short of denying R.J. Reynolds its right to a fair trial,” said the majority opinion written by Judge Thomas Logue and joined by Judge Kevin Emas.

But Chief Judge Leslie Rothenberg dissented. “A new trial is required because the plaintiffs’ counsel made numerous improper and inflammatory closing arguments,” Rothenberg wrote.

“These improper arguments, which were repeatedly objected to by R.J. Reynolds, but which were inexplicably overruled or ignored by the trial court, contributed to the very high jury awards and denied R.J. Reynolds of its right to a fair trial.”

The Miami-Dade County case is what is known as an “Engle progeny case” — one of the thousands of lawsuits filed in Florida against tobacco companies.

Those cases stem from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling that established critical findings about issues including the dangers of smoking and misrepresentation by cigarette makers.

(©2018 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida’s contributed to this report.)

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