Sick smokers' interest on hold
The interest lost daily on the record $145 billion judgment against Big Tobacco boggles the mind -- $39,726,027.
That's how much money Florida's estimated 700,000 sick smokers are losing every day, their lawyers say, because the Miami jury's July 14 punitive award against the nation's biggest tobacco companies has not become official.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Robert Kaye, who presided over the landmark, two-year trial, was unable to enter the final judgment on the record because Philip Morris and the four other tobacco defendants scrambled to move the post-trial review of the case to federal court.
U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro-Benages will decide after oral arguments on Nov. 7 whether to review the extraordinary verdict -- the largest in civil court history -- or send it back to Kaye. Big Tobacco lawyers would prefer Ungaro-Benages to consider the industry's request to throw out or lower the jury's award because they contend they have gotten few, if any, breaks from Kaye.
The smokers' husband-and-wife legal team, Susan and Stanley Rosenblatt, wants Ungaro-Benages to send the case immediately back to the state court, where the Miami jury issued three verdicts against the tobacco defendants for deceiving the public about the addictive and deadly nature of their cigarette products.
In court papers filed Tuesday, the Rosenblatts accused Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard, Brown & Williamson and The Liggett Group of ``engaging in blatant forum shopping'' and of ``using the federal courts to delay the state court proceedings.''
Kaye, whom the team of tobacco lawyers tried unsuccessfully to remove from the case, retires from the bench at the end of the year. Some members of the Florida class of smokers are very ill or deceased -- including Miguel Serrano of Miami, who died Aug. 8 of complications from emphysema.
``Class representative Mary Farnan has lung cancer that has metastasized to her brain,'' the Rosenblatts' court filing said, referring to the 44-year-old retired nurse from the Gainesville area.
The Rosenblatts declined to discuss their latest filing. Attorneys for the largest cigarette maker, Philip Morris -- which has taken the industry's lead on the case -- did not return calls for comment.
In the meantime, the smokers' loss of interest on the judgment against Big Tobacco continues indefinitely.
Under Florida law, the five tobacco defendants don't have to start paying 10 percent annual interest on the $145 billion award until it has been officially entered in the court record by a judge. Once entered, the defendants would have to pay the daily interest in full -- unless they prevail during the lengthy appeals process in having the class-action award overturned.
For now, the judgment against the tobacco firms remains in limbo because of their successful tactics in shifting the case to federal court.
As a result, the Rosenblatts estimate in court papers, the sick Florida smokers stand to lose billions of dollars in interest. For the sake of argument, they calculated that if Ungaro-Benages sends the case back to Kaye on Nov. 7 -- the date of the next hearing -- and he enters the judgment that day, the smokers will have lost 107 days of interest on the award.