Fla. Gov. Bush Signs Tobacco Bill
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Gov. Jeb Bush signed legislation Tuesday to ease the pain for tobacco companies facing a possible multibillion dollar verdict in a Miami class-action lawsuit they say may force them into bankruptcy.
The measure, which took effect immediately, is meant to protect the companies so they can continue to pay Florida billions they owe the state from the 1997 settlement of a lawsuit seeking compensation for years of paying to treat sick smokers.
The amount the companies owe is estimated at $13 billion over the next 25 years. The state has gotten accustomed to having the money, about $500 million a year, for children's and elderly programs.
Of immediate concern to lawmakers and Bush is a case in Miami in which a class of sick Florida smokers and ex-smokers that may reach 500,000 people has sued the industry seeking their own damages.
The jury in that case is expected to begin considering punitive damages against cigarette makers next week. The jury became the first in the nation to decide in favor of smokers as a class when it awarded compensatory damages in the case.
The industry has said the damages might reach $300 billion.
The measure signed by Bush caps the bond the companies would have to post to appeal the verdict at a $100 million or 10 percent of the companies' net worth, whichever is lower.
The law also sets up a mechanism by which lawmakers may begin selling off part of the future tobacco income to investors if they choose to do so.
Bush wasn't available for comment after signing the bill.