Broward County Circuit Court's Jeffrey Streitfeld really took home the "activist judge" belt when he presided over Lucinda Naugle's 2009 lawsuit against Big Tobacco.
The sister of a former Fort Lauderdale mayor, Naugle was a smoker whose 25-year habit led to emphysema. She asked the court to put Philip Morris legally on the hook for the damage, and a jury agreed, handing the plaintiff a eye-popping $300 million settlement. Yup, that's a lot of zeroes -- the largest tobacco settlement on the books.
But Streitfeld seemed to have gotten a little too nervous about his court entering the history book as the site of Big Tobacco's first serious bloodletting. He slashed the settlement figure down to a blue light special discount of $36 million. His justification was that the jury was just too emotional at the time to think straight. Reportedly, it was also that time of the month for some of the women on the jury, and some dudes were a little too nervous about the Hurricanes' ACC standing. See, no one was thinking right.
Unfortunately, that cop-out from the bench was basically allowed to stand this week when the matter when before an appeals court.
The Fourth District Appeals bench in West Palm Beach ruled not to restore the initial damages; rather, the trial judge should have just dismissed the figure entirely, the panel found. Wednesday's decision instead calls for a new jury to decided how much money Naugle will win.
Which seems to basically deflate the whole point of the legal system. We all know how it works: 12 citizens have their faces rubbed in evidence for X-amount of time, soaking in all the facts and emotional debris, and on the other end make a call. That's the legal system.
Separating the punitive phase from the heat of the actual trial drops some kick from it. 12 adults made a decision, and yes, they were probably pissed when they dug in on Philip Morris. But that doesn't give the bench the right to second-guess that decision -- even if it was ballsy. They were good and pissed for a reason.