Landmark Smoking Case To Be Reviewed
MIAMI (AP) -- The appeals court that barred a huge class-action lawsuit against tobacco companies has decided to take a second look at its ruling, one that spared the industry a possible multibillion-dollar verdict
The Third District Court of Appeal ruled Sept. 3 that damage claims in the landmark case must be considered one smoker at a time, rather than for the class estimated at 500,000 Floridians.
The ruling was a victory for tobacco companies, which could more easily defend against individual lawsuits than one large suit carrying a potentially huge verdict.
But the court on Friday announced plans to hear arguments on the matter Sept. 30.
``This ruling has the potential to raise significantly the case's risk potential,'' David Adelman, a tobacco analyst with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, said Tuesday.
In July, jurors found the nation's largest cigarette makers and industry groups had produced a defective and deadly product. The same jury was to hear evidence about individual class representatives and determine whether damages are appropriate.
But the appellate court's earlier decision foiled Circuit Judge Robert Kaye's plan to have the jury determine one punitive damage award for the class before the case breaks into individual trials around the state.
Kaye put the trial on hold until Oct. 12 to allow plaintiffs' attorneys to request a rehearing of the appeal, but the papers hadn't been filed when the court ruled Friday.
``It's unusual for the court on its own motion to do it,'' said Jacksonville attorney Greg Maxwell, who has tried individual smokers' cases. ``It tells me there are some judges on the court who are concerned about acting too hastily on this issue.''
Adelman suggested a desire to be heard more fully on the matter or pressure from other judges to force a settlement may have motivated the court.
U.S. juries have awarded damages in smoking liability cases only five times -- twice in Florida and once in New Jersey, Oregon and California. Both Florida verdicts and the New Jersey verdict were overturned on appeal.
The $206 billion national settlement reached with the tobacco industry in November bars states from suing to recoup the costs of treating sick smokers, but doesn't stop lawsuits by individuals.