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Court helps ill smokers filing individual suits

Florida's Supreme Court gave ailing smokers a boost to file individual lawsuits against the tobacco industry, though it upheld an earlier decision to throw out a $145 billion award

Dec 22, 2006 | Miami Herald

The Florida Supreme Court Thursday snuffed out the tobacco industry's strategy to slow down thousands of ailing state smokers in pursuing individual lawsuits against the country's major cigarette makers.

The high court, in a 4-2 vote, rejected a request by Philip Morris USA and other tobacco corporations to throw out key legal findings by a Miami-Dade jury in a landmark class-action case.

Those findings on the health hazards of smoking, the addictive nature of nicotine and the industry's deceptive marketing practices will provide an edge for sick smokers who were part of the lawsuit a decade ago to move ahead with individual claims.


In July, the state Supreme Court had delivered a huge blow to the Florida class of smokers by overturning a $145 billion punitive judgment awarded by a Miami-Dade Circuit Court jury. The six justices who had heard the appeal a seventh dropped out because of a conflict of interest concluded that the jury's punitive damage award in 2000 was ''excessive as a matter of law,'' because it was unreasonably high.

The justices also decertified the class filed on behalf of approximately 700,000 smokers. The justices found that each ailing smoker must prove individually that cigarettes caused illnesses ranging from cancer to emphysema. On Thursday, the justices redelivered those twin-barreled blows but they left almost entirely intact critical legal findings by the Miami-Dade jury in the high-stakes case.

The Miami couple who have represented the class of smokers hailed the high court's ruling.

''It's a victory for the class,'' said an attorney, who worked on the case with his lawyer-wife. ``Everything the tobacco industry asked for was denied with one exception.''

In that instance, the high court dismissed the Miami-Dade jury's finding of fraud and misrepresentation by the industry its only victory on Thursday.


Philip Morris said in a statement that it would seek further appellate review of the state Supreme Court's latest decision not to reconsider certain portions of its summer ruling. The company said that no Florida class member should be allowed to pursue individual damage claims until the next round of appeals is completed though it's unclear where Philip Morris would make its next appellate move.

''Although we continue to believe that the Florida Supreme Court's decision to reverse the punitive damages award and decertify the class was the correct one, Philip Morris USA believes there are important legal issues that deserve further consideration,'' said William Ohlemeyer, company vice president and associate general counsel.

Philip Morris, the nation's largest cigarette maker, was joined in the appeal by R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, Lorillard and the Liggett Group.

All of the tobacco defendants, which have been embroiled in litigation for years, had never faced a class action of this kind.

The Florida Supreme Court's ruling upheld part of a 2003 decision by the Third District Court of Appeal in Miami-Dade County, which threw out the punitive award and decertified the class.


But the high court differed with the appeals panel on practically all other issues including an appellate ruling that said trial Judge Robert Kaye had wrongly allowed the Miami-Dade jury to consider punitive damages for the class before each member first proved individual claims.

A majority of the state Supreme Court Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis and Justices Harry Lee Anstead, Barbara J. Pariente and Peggy A. Quince ruled that Kaye did not overstep his authority when he certified the class.

But the justices also said the Florida smokers have ''highly individualized'' medical histories that ``do not lend themselves to class-action treatment.''

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