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Tobacco Companies Face Thousands of Florida Lawsuits

Jan 14, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
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New lawsuits against U.S. tobacco companies are on the rise in Florida from smokers and their families seeking compensation before last Friday's court-imposed deadline for filing individual claims.  Plaintiffs were allowed to file individually in state court—until the deadline—against tobacco companies following Florida’s Supreme Court reversal of a $145 billion punitive award in a class-action case against cigarette makers.  The reversal allowed individuals to pursue claims in state court.  "The Supreme Court found that cigarette manufacturers are negligent and that their products are defective, unreasonably dangerous, addictive, and the cause of 16 separate diseases in human beings," said Ed Sweda, lead attorney for the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University in Boston.  "This is a major, serious problem for the tobacco companies to be facing here," he said. "We're very much encouraged."

When the state Supreme Court refused to reinstate the $145 billion award last year, it was seen as a huge victory for the tobacco industry; however, because the reversal allowed individuals to pursue claims, smokers might benefit from the Supreme Court's approval of trial court decisions that smoking causes diseases and that cigarette companies sold defective products and concealed the truth about the dangers of smoking.  William Ohlemeyer, the executive in charge of smoking and health litigation at Philip Morris—the nation’s largest cigarette maker—confirmed that there are approximately 1,800 cases pending against them in Florida, placing Florida at the head of the legal battle.  "About half of them are wrongful death cases, which is to say that the smoker is deceased," said Ohlemeyer.  "I'm sure they're looking at a lot of money," he added.  Philip Morris currently faces about100 individual tobacco-related lawsuits in other parts of the country, but Ohlemeyer is confident in Philip Morris’s ability to defend itself.  "The company has been involved in this kind of litigation for 50 years and we generally are successful in reminding jurors that, you know, people who smoke make an informed choice about smoking. They're well aware of the risks," he said.  A spokesman at R.J. Reynolds—the nation’s second largest cigarette maker—was also served with about 1,800 claims.

Norwood Wilner a Jacksonville, Florida, lawyer who has initiated other lawsuits against cigarette makers in the past said the class-action case filed by Miami Beach pediatrician Howard Engle in 1994 would likely speed claims, benefiting individual plaintiffs.  "A good deal of the case has already been done," said Wilner. "What the Supreme Court said was these are damage claims and that liability has basically been determined.”  Wilner said he expected to have nearly 4,000 new claims pending against tobacco companies by the deadline.  "We're trying to get some compensation for these folks and some of them have been waiting for 15 years to have their day in court," he said.

Cigarette smoking is the most important preventable cause of premature death in the United State, accounting for nearly 440,000 of the more than 2.4 million annual deaths.  Smokers have a higher risk of developing several chronic disorders including atherosclerosis, several types of cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

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