Florida Court: Tobacco Case Belongs in State Court
MIAMI (Reuters) - A federal judge in Miami has ruled that a state-wide class action case by sick Florida smokers against tobacco companies in which a jury awarded a record $145 billion in punitive damages belongs in state court, attorneys said on Sunday.
The decision, accepting a motion by the smokers' attorneys, means the plaintiffs can return to the state court to pursue a court order to finalize the jury verdict reached in July and opens the way for the appeals process to get underway.
U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro-Benages issued her order in a statement received by lawyers on Saturday, smokers' attorney Stanley Rosenblatt told Reuters. Ungaro-Benages had been due to hear arguments next Tuesday on whether the case belonged in state or federal court, but issued the ruling without those arguments.
In a verdict that dwarfed previous U.S. punitive damages awards, a six-member jury awarded $145 billion in punitive damages on July 14 to the statewide class of more than half a million sick smokers and relatives of people who died of smoking-related diseases.
The five leading U.S. tobacco companies involved called days later for the suit to be moved to federal court after the Southeastern Iron Workers Health Care Plan asked to join the suit. The smokers' attorneys then filed a motion for the case to be sent back to state court.
Rosenblatt welcomed Ungaro-Benages' decision, saying the tobacco companies used the union issue as a technical means of trying to get the case switched to a federal court -- where they might expect more favorable treatment than in state court.
``It (the ruling) means we can get back online; we are back in the state court system'' Rosenblatt said. ``The tobacco industry specializes in obstacles ... but we think that ultimately the tobacco companies will have to honor the jury's verdict.''
He said the next move for the smokers' attorneys would be to call on the trial judge, Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Robert Kaye, to enter the final judgement. He noted that Kaye would now be likely to set a hearing to argue the defendants' various post-trial motions.
An attorney at Phillip Morris Philip Morris Cos Inc. said that despite the setback, the company would now press ahead with its defense of the so-called Engle case, believing a host of mistakes made at the trial would require the court eventually to set aside the July verdict.
``While we believed the significant legal issues raised in this case should have been decided in the federal court, we have continued to conduct the work necessary to pursue our appeal in state court,'' William Ohlemeyer, associate general counsel, said in a statement.
``The state court now must rule on a host of post-trial motions, and if we are unsuccessful in having the verdict reversed at this stage, we will file all necessary appeals with Florida's appellate court system as soon as it becomes legally appropriate,'' he said.
The judgement was handed down against Philip Morris, the number 1 cigarette maker whose brands include Marlboro; R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings Inc. , maker of Dorals and Camels; Brown & Williamson, a unit of British American Tobacco Plc; Lorillard Tobacco Co., owned by Loews Corp.; and Liggett, a unit of Vector Group Ltd.
The state court held a two-year-long trial that resulted in a jury determination that smoking causes a host of diseases and a $12.7 million compensatory damage judgement for three plaintiffs harmed by smoking. The case was named after Howard Engle, a Miami pediatrician with emphysema.
Ohlemeyer said he believed the verdict ultimately should be overturned because, among other reasons, the class certification violated Florida law and the trial plan violated the state and federal constitutions.