Smokers Lawyers Urge Judge to OK $145 Billion Verdict
MIAMI (Reuters) - Plaintiffs' lawyers, saying they were eager to start accruing the interest, pressed for a quick signing by the trial judge of an historic $145 billion judgement against America's biggest tobacco companies.
Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Robert Kaye, who oversaw the two-year Engle class-action trial on behalf of Florida's sick smokers, can trim, raise or simply agree with the massive punitive damages award issued by a Miami jury on Friday.
Interest on the award would begin accruing once Judge Kaye signs an order, even as appeals are heard, according to one plaintiff attorney.
Friday's $145 billion award, the highest in U.S. history, and liability verdicts made earlier in the case are also certain to be challenged by tobacco appeals likely to last for years, according to industry lawyers and analysts.
Under a new Florida law, the defendants will need to post only $100 million or less while appealing.
Kaye told reporters after a brief post-trial hearing on Monday that he did not expect to sign the awards order this week and may schedule a hearing next week if lawyers for Philip Morris (NYSE:MO - news) and the other defendants raise objections to his verdict order.
``I'll have to wait and see what they file,'' Kaye said.
Lead tobacco lawyer Dan Webb, representing Philip Morris, said during the hearing that Kaye has yet to decide 64 motions for mistrial and other matters and that the defendants would soon file a proposed plan for dealing with post-trial issues.
Requests for a new trial, legal challenges to the award, and the complicated and unusual structure of the multi-part case -- the only sick smokers class action ever to come to a verdict -- were likely avenues for motions and appeals, according to Salomon Smith Barney analyst Martin Feldman.
Susan Rosenblatt, a lawyer for the estimated 500,000 or more sick smokers represented in the class action, said an order formalizing the jury verdicts should be signed as soon as possible despite the looming wave of motions and appeals.
``We are interested in getting a judgement entered,'' she said. ``In terms of the interest running, in terms of getting our judgement entered, we are interested in that.''
Kaye gave no signal of his thinking on the jury award, but other U.S. trial judges have sharply reduced massive punitive damages awards in other big cases. A California judge last year cut to $1.09 billion from $4.8 billion punitive damages imposed by a jury on carmaker General Motors.
On Friday, six jurors ordered five tobacco companies, including Marlboros-maker Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco (NYSE:RJR - news), best known for Camels, to pay nearly $145 billion in punitive damages.
Afterward, some members of the jury that found the defendants liable for fraud and conspiracy told reporters they had wanted to penalize the tobacco companies for a half century of lying and other misdeeds.