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Court Addresses Florida’s Concurring Cause Theory In Phillip Morris U.S.A., Inc. v. Tullo

In Florida personal injury cases, an injured person can recover damages if two separate forces caused harm. The legal theory is known as the concurring cause theory. The concurring cause theory surfaces in many types of cases. For example, the concurring cause theory appears in medical malpractice cases, products liability cases, and sometimes in car accident cases. However, our personal injury attorneys report that a Florida Court of Appeals recently analyzed the rule when used in trial accusing tobacco companies of causing the wrongful death of a Florida resident.

As experienced Miami personal injury lawyers, we have seen cases which we used the concurring cause theory to maximize our client’s recovery like the plaintiff did in Phillip Morris U.S.A., Inc. v. Tullo. The plaintiff was the wife of a man who died from lung cancer. He was a life-long smoker of various brands of cigarettes. The jury found the tobacco companies liable for the lung cancer. The plaintiff argued that the tobacco companies were responsible because the decedent was a smoker and the tobacco companies knew cigarettes were highly addictive from the high amounts of nicotine contained in them. The tobacco companies countered by arguing that the plaintiff’s husband was responsible for his lung cancer for failing to quit smoking. 

The plaintiff successfully alleged that the tobacco company was liable because its gross negligence was the legal cause of the decedent’s death. The plaintiff argued that smoking was a concurrent cause of the lung cancer which claimed the life of the plaintiff’s husband. Florida courts describe concurrent cause as two or more separate forces that combine to cause one injury.  The opposing forces do not have to occur simultaneously, but they must occur within the same time frame. A plaintiff cannot take advantage of the concurrent cause theory when the forces in question were separated by a significant amount of time.  However, the fact that one alleged cause occurred before the other does not prevent combining the two causes in assessing liability.

The trial judge has the discretion to instruct the jury on the law of concurring cause.  If the plaintiff’s own negligence is the only other cause combined with the defendant’s negligence, then the judge is not obligated to give the jury the instruction but may give the instruction. The trial judge, in this case, gave the concurrent cause instruction. The Court of Appeals approved of the trial judge’s use of the jury instruction. Other Florida Courts of Appeals also approve of using the concurrent cause instruction in this way.

Applying the concurrent cause theory, in this case, was just. The tobacco companies concealed the true extent of the harmful effects of cigarette smoking. Additionally, the tobacco companies hid the nicotine levels in their products making it impossible for some people to quit smoking or cause them to smoke for so long that succumbing to lung cancer was virtually inevitable.

Our vast experience in Florida personal injury cases allows us to argue the concurrent cause theory persuasively. We argue that the concurrent cause theory should apply to our clients’ cases when the evidence suggests more than one force caused our clients’ injuries. For instance, we argue this theory when a person suffers injuries in a car accident, and more than one vehicle caused the crash. Also, we use the argument on behalf of our medical malpractice patients when medical malpractice combines with someone else’s negligence to cause injury or death to a client.

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Sources:

Philip Morris USA, Inc. v. Tullo, 121 So. 3d 595 – Fla: Dist. Court of Appeals, 4th Dist. 2013

Philip Morris USA, Inc. v. Douglas, 110 So. 3d 419 – Fla: Supreme Court 2013

Engle v. Liggett Group, Inc., 945 So. 2d 1246 – Fla: Supreme Court 2006

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