Court rejects tobacco pleas
One after another, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Robert Kaye swiftly rejected 46 pleas by Big Tobacco to throw out a $145 billion judgment for Florida's sick smokers -- formally ending the landmark class-action case in the trial court.
Kaye officially entered the record civil judgment Monday against Philip Morris and the other four tobacco defendants, which tried unsuccessfully to have the Miami jury's July 14 verdict reviewed in federal court. That court sent the case back to Kaye over the weekend.
Philip Morris, which controls half of the nation's cigarette market, said it planned to file a notice of appeal today in response to Kaye's scathing order.
``At first blush, a [$145] billion punitive damage award seems so far outside the comprehension of any reasonably thinking person that one would immediately say it is shocking and not in keeping with rational thought,'' Kaye said in his 68-page order, issued without a hearing on the industry's motions. ``However, keep in mind the enormity of the 70 years of [industry] behavior and the almost incomprehensible damage that was done to such a huge number of people.''
``If one really examined the entire record in detail of the decades of abuses committed by the defendants upon an ill-informed and unsuspecting public, one could say it was that concerted behavior on the part of the defendants, over so many years, affecting so many people, that `shocks the conscience of the court,' not the award itself,'' Kaye concluded.
Philip Morris, which spoke on behalf of all the tobacco defendants during the post-verdict challenge, called Kaye's decision ``preposterous.''
William Ohlemeyer, the company's general counsel, said the five major cigarette makers have succeeded in getting state and federal judges to throw out 30 class-action cases before they have gone to trial. The Miami case has been the only exception.
He stressed that Kaye should have never allowed the 700,000-member Florida class' case to go forward before each plaintiff established that the industry was liable for illness from smoking. Only three members of the Florida class had to establish such negligence before the Miami jury reached its verdict on punitive damages against the industry.
``We will attack the trial plan,'' Ohlemeyer said.
He said the industry was not shocked by Kaye's decision to enter the jury's verdict into the court record without reducing it, noting that the judge is a former smoker who seemed sympathetic to the plaintiffs' case from the outset of the two-year trial in circuit court. They also said the judge seemed to be in a rush to enter the judgment because he retires at the end of the year.
``Clearly, [Florida] law requires a judge in a case like this to reduce the verdict to an amount that would not bankrupt or economically cripple the tobacco industry,'' Ohlemeyer said. ``The evidence was clear that the industry could not pay these damages immediately.''
Kaye, in a brief interview with The Herald, said: ``It was time for closure.''
Ohlemeyer said Philip Morris and the other tobacco defendants, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, Lorillard and the Liggett Group, will file their notice of appeals today with the state Third District Court of Appeal.
They must post the required bond of $100 million during this next phase.
If the Miami jury's judgment stands throughout the appeals process, which is expected to go all the way to the Florida Supreme Court, the industry would have to pay interest amounting to an estimated $39 million per day -- as of Monday.
The smokers' Miami attorney, Stanley Rosenblatt, and the lead plaintiff for the Florida class rejoiced over Kaye's order.
``It feels great that this is finally over,'' Rosenblatt said.
``The only thing they can do now is appeal.''
Mary Farnan, 45, who underwent three lung and brain cancer operations after decades of smoking, said she was ``totally overwhelmed.''
``I just hope the higher-ups on appeal see the judge and jury's foresight on this issue,'' she said.
``I hope they see the important verdict the jury reached and let it stand.''