300 tobacco lawsuits to be filed
Three hundred flight attendants -- who say they never smoked cigarettes -- plan to file individual lawsuits in Miami today against U.S. tobacco makers, claiming their respiratory illnesses were caused by second-hand smoke aboard jetliners.
They are seeking millions of dollars in damages.
Thousands of other lawsuits are expected to be filed by September -- the deadline under a class-action settlement reached between the airline attendants and Big Tobacco in Miami-Dade Circuit Court in 1997. As part of that agreement, flight attendants won the right to sue the tobacco industry on an individual basis.
Among the alleged victims is Cindy Williams, 45, of West Palm Beach, who worked as a flight attendant for U.S. Air from 1973 to 1998. She is now out on disability.
Williams said she was cooped up in commercial jetliners daily and forced to inhale passenger cigarette smoke for years until smoking was banned by the airline in 1989.
``I cough more than a hundred times a day,'' said Williams, a mother of two who is married to the chairman of the Port of Palm Beach County. ``I see a pulmonary specialist and ENT every month, and they fear I have inflamed bronchial tubes. They are highly irritated, and that causes me to cough.
``I have that wheezing feeling in my chest, and I've never smoked a cigarette in my life,'' added Williams. ``I look fit, I just don't feel fit.''
BURDEN ON TOBACCO
The flight attendants -- once thought to face impossible odds against the industry -- may have an advantage in their individual suits. The burden of proof rests with the cigarette makers to show jurors that something other than second-hand smoke caused their respiratory sicknesses.
The suits are being filed at a critical time for the tobacco industry, which is fighting countless lawsuits by sick smokers and paying billion-dollar settlements to states across the nation.
In Miami-Dade Circuit Court, attorneys for a class of 500,000 sick Florida smokers are arguing their landmark case against Big Tobacco -- a trial that could cripple the industry with astronomical compensatory and punitive damages.
Jurors already found that tobacco makers such as Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds deceived the public about the addictive nature and deadly effects of smoking cigarettes.
The husband-and-wife legal team heading that case, Stanley and Susan Rosenblatt, are the same attorneys who won the original class-action settlement for flight attendants in 1997, which was upheld by a Florida appellate court last year.
Under that 1997 agreement, the tobacco companies agreed to pay $300 million to a new research foundation to find a cure for respiratory illnesses suffered from second-hand smoke.
A spokeswoman for R.J. Reynolds said, as policy, the tobacco company would not comment on the expected lawsuits because they have not been filed yet. But the spokeswoman, Jan Smith, said: ``We would vigorously defend ourselves in court.'' The Rosenblatts, who face a court gag order in their current tobacco trial, picked six Miami law firms to represent the flight attendants. Each of the six law firms will file 50 suits for the 300 flight attendants.
Miami attorney Steven Hunter believes the attendants have strong cases because of victories in the previous flight attendants' class case.
``Once you establish that the second-hand smoke is causing their diseases, you're almost home,'' Hunter said, adding that each attendant will be able to show how cigarette smoke affected their health, medical costs, livelihood and lifestyle.
``It has to be terrifying to have a disease that affects your ability to breathe,'' Hunter said. ``More than half are still working, but all of them have seen their lives go downhill. You can't put a dollar amount on damages yet because each flight attendant has a different case.''
Williams, of West Palm Beach, said she doubts she will ever be able to return to work.
``I'm fearful about the future, because as I get older I'm not going to have the ability to withstand what I withstand every day,'' said Williams. ``I'm hoping for a miracle cure.''