Judge may propose tobacco national class-action suit
A New York federal judge is considering an unprecedented national class action that would allow millions of sick smokers to sue top cigarette makers collectively for punitive damages.
But the proposal -- which could lead to a national settlement -- would have no effect on a Miami jury's $145 billion punitive award for Florida smokers against Big Tobacco in state court, their attorney said Thursday.
Federal Judge Jack B. Weinstein on Monday is expected to propose the national class-action suit, which was suggested by lawyers for smokers who have sued the tobacco industry in the Eastern District of New York.
The idea would be for both sides to negotiate a national settlement on punitive damages, and to allow individual smokers to pursue compensatory claims against the industry. Punitive awards are usually far greater than compensatory damages, which include medical costs, lost wages and pain and suffering.
``It's just talk, and I'm convinced it will go nowhere,'' said Miami attorney Stanley Rosenblatt, who represented 700,000 Florida smokers in their class-action suit against the tobacco industry. ``An approach [by plaintiffs' attorneys] was made to me, but I rebuffed them.''
Lorillard Tobacco and the Liggett Group are reportedly involved in preliminary talks with the smokers' lawyers to reach a nationwide settlement of all claims against the industry. The companies, ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, among cigarette makers, declined to comment.
But the three largest tobacco companies -- Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds and Brown & Williamson -- said they would never agree to such a proposal or to settle all smokers' punitive claims against them.
The maneuver in New York follows the extraordinary class-action case in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, where a jury found the industry liable for deceiving the public about the addictive and deadly nature of its products. In July, the jurors ordered Big Tobacco to pay a record $145 billion punitive judgment to the estimated 700,000 sick Florida smokers in the class.
For now, tobacco attorneys have succeeded in having that verdict moved to Miami federal court for review by U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro-Benages.