Smokers urge court to let Florida verdict stand
TALLAHASSEE, Fla., Dec 1 (Reuters) - Tobacco industry efforts to reduce the scope of a sweeping class-action suit victory in July are an attempt to undo the jury verdict and nullify a potentially crippling judgment, a lawyer for thousands of Florida smoke
A six-member Florida jury this summer ruled that U.S. tobacco companies were liable for ailments ranging from cancer to heart and lung disease among smokers in the state, sending the suit to the second, penalty phase. Some experts have said damages could reach $300 billion to $500 billion.
In a move seen as a positive for the cigarette industry, the Florida Supreme Court on Nov. 3 asked for legal briefs on a tobacco industry request to block a potentially giant lump-sum damage award.
In a 50-page response brief filed on Tuesday with the Florida Supreme Court, attorney Stanley Rosenblatt said industry attempts to require that each plaintiff in the Engle lawsuit seek individual awards fly in the face of previous court rulings.
The Engle case, named after Miami Beach doctor Howard Engle who suffers from emphysema, was filed on behalf of all Florida smokers who say they were sickened by cigarettes.
In his brief, Rosenblatt argued that cigarette makers waited too long to seek a change in the rules. The companies did not seek a reduction in the class size until after the July 7 verdict against them.
``It is apparent that all of the legal positions and various extraordinary petitions filed by the tobacco industry are aimed at a single goal -- to undo the past five and a half years of litigation, a year of trial and the verdict of the jury in Phase I,'' Rosenblatt wrote.
Cigarette makers are seeking a review by the state's highest court of an October appellate court ruling that denied the industry's request that damages be determined on an individual basis and not across the class as a whole.
Filed in 1994, the case originally claimed a nationwide class of plaintiffs. In 1996, the 3rd District Court of Appeals reduced the class to Florida citizens and residents.
In October the Miami-based appellate court refused to reduce the size of the class further. In their pleading, tobacco industry attorneys urged the high court to quash the appellate court's October ruling.
``The trial court's order will allow the jury to award a devastating, potentially bankrupting, unbondable punitive award, completely untethered by any finding or consideration of compensatory liability,'' wrote attorney Townsend Hawkes, who represented tobacco interests.
``The jury will have no idea how many class members might have valid claims or what the amount of the compensatory liability might be,'' he added.
Rosenblatt discounted Hawkes' predictions, saying the potential price to be paid by cigarette makers ``pale in contrast to the suffering of thousands of Floridians, many of whom are World War Two and Vietnam veterans, who received free cigarettes in their rations from the defendants, and whose diseases were caused by petitioners' products and the continuing fraud perpetrated on the Florida class...''
Cigarette makers have until Dec. 6 to reply to Rosenblatt's brief. The high court will then decide whether to review the case.