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Florida Tobacco Suits May Shrink

October 6, 2010 - 6:00pm

Cigarette companies burned by lawsuits in Florida hope that the worst is behind them.

Some 8,000 suits have been filed against tobacco firms -- more than in all other states combined. Since 2009, Florida juries have awarded smokers and their families more than $250 million in damages -- 10 times the total levied nationwide.

Florida's Supreme Court ignited the tobacco suits when it ruled four years ago that findings in a 1994 class-action lawsuit, Engle v. Liggett Group, would be binding in future smoking cases. The decision stipulated that tobacco companies sold cigarettes that were "defective" and "unreasonably dangerous" and concealed the dangers of smoking.

The tobacco industry argues that the Engle decision violates due process "by relying on general finding of a previous jury with no connection to the cases at hand," says Philip Morris USA spokesman Steve Callahan.

While plaintiffs have won 19 of 26 cases since the high court's decision, the tide may be turning.

Two cases in Duval and Manatee counties that had ended with deadlocked juries were won by Philip Morris on retrial.

R.J. Reynolds also won a case this year, giving Big Tobacco a 3-0 record in the most recent trials.

Meantime, a federal court ruled that plaintiffs do not have an automatic right to use the Engle findings. That decision affects the 4,000 cases pending in federal courts around Florida. No federal cases have gone to trial since that ruling was issued in July, Callahan said.

If the recent pattern holds, Florida will fall into line with other states where juries have become increasingly skeptical of blaming illnesses and deaths on cigarette manufacturers.

While tobacco companies may be unpopular with many juries, "the bottom line is that juries also hate smokers," attorney C. Calvin Warriner III told the Wall Street Journal.

"It is their natural inclination to think an injury is the smoker's fault," said Warriner, whose Florida firm represents plaintiffs in 500 tobacco cases.

Still, tobacco companies say the deck remains stacked against them as long as Engle stands.

Philip Morris lost nine verdicts in the past two years in the state, totaling $86 million in damages. Outside of Florida, the company has suffered one damage award of $13.8 million during the same period.

R.J. Reynolds lost 15 verdicts since 2009, with some of these state cases overlapping between the two companies.

While mounting a challenge to Engle's constitutionality, Callahan said Philip Morris is appealing all losing verdicts and will "vigorously defend" every case going forward.

And in one small consolation for Big Tobacco, no more Engle-based cases are being added. The Florida Supreme Court imposed a 2008 deadline for plaintiffs to file such suits.


Contact Kenric Ward at or at (772) 801-5341.

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