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Florida Tobacco Lawsuit Deluge Coming, As Legal Experts See Big Advantages For Plaintiffs

Oct 29, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP

Tobacco lawsuits by the thousands will soon be jamming court dockets in the state of Florida, thanks to a ruling that nullified the class-action status of a decade-old tobacco lawsuit in the state.   But while the ensuing flurry of  Florida tobacco lawsuits could wreak havoc with Florida’s system of civic justice, many legal experts say that the shear volume of tobacco litigation will be advantageous for the thousands of smoking victims expected to sue big tobacco.

That the tobacco companies must now fight what could be thousands of Florida tobacco lawsuits is a development of their own making.  In 1994, thousands of Florida smokers brought a class-action lawsuit against tobacco companies for the injuries they sustained from smoking.  In 1999, the jury hearing R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. vs. Engle agreed that cigarette makers had deceived smokers about the safety of their product, and awarded $145 billion in punitive damages to the plaintiffs.   But in 2003, a Florida appeals court reversed that decision.   Then, in 2006 the Florida Supreme Court refused to reinstate the punitive damages and stripped the lawsuit of its class-action status.  But the Florida court did allow individuals who could have won judgments under the original verdict to use findings from the year-long jury trial to bring new cases against the cigarette makers. Then, earlier this month, the US Supreme Court refused to hear the tobacco companies’ appeal of the Florida court's decision, which was mainly an attempt to prevent Florida smokers from using the 1999 jury findings in their lawsuits.

It is estimated that more than 700,000 people could file individual lawsuits against tobacco companies.   If even a fraction of that number does go to court, the cigarette makers will have to stretch their resources to defend so many Florida tobacco lawsuits.  In short, it was much less costly and far easier for the tobacco companies to defend one class action lawsuit than potentially hundreds of thousands of individual Florida tobacco lawsuits.

Furthermore, the Florida Supreme Court left tobacco victims valuable ammunition to use in their lawsuits.  That court upheld the 1999 jury’s findings that smoking caused lung and other cancers, as well as a whole litany of other diseases.   It also let stand the jury’s finding that the cigarette makers concealed information that their products were deadly and addictive.  The fact that smokers won’t have to prove these key points could go a long way in helping them win Florida tobacco lawsuits.

Of course, the tobacco companies aren’t taking any of this laying down.   Right now, they claim they are planning to defend every Florida tobacco lawsuit.   But even if they win some cases, it will still be an expensive proposition as the legal costs from fighting thousands of Florida tobacco lawsuits will be astronomical.  The cigarette makers are also trying to get the Florida tobacco lawsuits moved from state to federal courts, and they want one federal judge to oversee all of the cases.  But so far, that effort has had mixed results, with US judges sending some Florida tobacco lawsuits right back to the state courts.  

In any case, it will likely be many years before all of the Florida tobacco lawsuits are resolved.  Florida smokers who had been eligible for the original 1994 class action tobacco lawsuit have until January 11, 2007 to file their individual cases in Florida state courts.  

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