Florida Governor Backs Act Sapping Smoker Claims
MIAMI (Reuters) - Florida's governor said on Monday he would support prospective legislation shielding tobacco companies from crippling punitive damages in a massive sick-smokers' class-action case underway in Miami.
As a jury in Miami readied to decide damages in the Engle tobacco case, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, brother of Republican Party presidential candidate George W. Bush (news - web sites), said Florida now receives about $450 million a year from a $13 billion tobacco settlement reached in 1997.
The Florida deal was just one between state governments and cigarette makers calling for $246 billion in payments over 25 years to compensate taxpayers for medical spending on smokers with lung cancer, heart disease and other illnesses.
But the Engle case, named after an ailing pediatrician, may produce punitive damages of $300 billion or more and has raised fears a stiff damages verdict could cut off existing payments to state governments.
``We would be supportive of protecting the flow of funds that come from the settlement,'' Bush said at a news conference in Tallahassee, Fla.
``If a bill was passed that dealt with that issue, in anticipation of the pending decision in Miami, that would be a good thing to do.''
No bill has been offered to Florida legislators, but State Attorney General Robert Butterworth last week formally proposed to legislative leaders an act that would put off fixing punitive damages in Engle almost indefinitely.
Tobacco stocks rose on Monday, at least partly on hopes Florida would pass a law giving cigarette makers succor, analysts said. Philip Morris, maker of Marlboro, closed up 1 11/16 to 22 13/16, while the parent of cigarette maker Lorillard, Loews Corp., went up 3 1/2 to 53 1/2.
Butterworth's proposal requires all individual damages to be determined before more hurtful punitive damages could be assessed. Individual trials in the class-action, involving as many as 1 million sick smokers, could drag on for decades, lawyers have said.
The six-member Engle jury last July found Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco and other cigarette makers liable for the illnesses of Florida's smokers and was expected to this week decide compensatory, or individual damages, for a nurse, a woodworker and a deceased housewife.
And while plaintiffs' attorney Stanley Rosenblatt has asked for only $14.4 million in compensatory damages, the trial judge has said the same jury can go on and fix punitive damages for the whole class if any compensatory damages are awarded.
A punitive award may be just weeks away, analysts have said. Analysts and experts are divided over what immediate effect a massive award would have on the tobacco industry, since appeals against the verdict were highly likely and might takes years to decide.
Tobacco lawyers in Miami-Dade County Court on Monday continued summing up months of testimony for the jury, with attorneys for Lorillard and Liggett saying there was little or no evidence any of the three had smoked their cigarettes.
Rosenblatt was expected to speak briefly on Tuesday, with the jurors beginning deliberations this week after legal instructions from the trial judge.