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Florida tobacco cases could go on for years, experts say

Jul 9, 2006 | While the tobacco industry dodged a big bullet with the Florida Supreme Court's decision to throw out a $145 billion punitive damage verdict levied against it, cigarette makers aren't off the hook yet as the ruling left open the door for potentially thousands of individual claims, legal observers said Friday.

The court nixed the case's class action status but reinstated compensatory awards to several plaintiffs, drawing a road map on how the next round of cases might pay a move that is likely to keep the lawyers on all sides employed for some time to come.

Engel et al. v. Liggett Group et al. pitted a class of sick smokers and the estates of dead ones against firms including Altria Group's Philip Morris USA and Reynolds American. The suit accused tobacco companies of misleading the public about the dangers of smoking. A Miami jury slapped the companies with the punitive damages in 2000. Three years later, Florida's Third District Court of Appeal set aside the decision and decertified the class. The state's high court agreed to hear the plaintiffs' appeal in 2004 and heard oral arguments in November of that year.

A senior attorney for the Tobacco Products Liability Project, said the Sunshine State panel's decision "is inviting the Florida plaintiff's bar to get onto the playing field."

The court found that cigarette manufacturers are negligent and that their products are defective, unreasonably dangerous and addictive, he continued, and that will carry over to individual claims by upwards of 100,000 class members.

"At trial, these class members will need only prove individual medical causation and reliance on any acts of fraud that may be alleged," he said. "We expect tens of thousands of streamlined cases to be filed in Florida by this time next year."

William Ohlemeyer, associate general counsel for Philip Morris USA, doesn't expect them to have much luck. He spoke to reporters after the verdict on Thursday.

"In decertifying the class, the court made it clear that former class members can now proceed only in individual trials, in which each individual plaintiff will have to prove liability on the part of the defendants including, among other things, that their use of a company's cigarettes caused their illness and that the company's conduct prevented them from making an informed choice to smoke," he said.

He added that the company's lawyers will decide after more analysis of the opinion "on which issues to seek further appellate review," but rejects analyses such as Sweda's as "wrong on the law, wrong on the facts and, frankly, disingenuous."

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