Time Running Out for Flight Attendants to Sue Tobacco Companies
Miami, Aug. 23 (Bloomberg) -- Tens of thousands of flight attendants who say they were stricken with cancer and other diseases from inhaling second-hand smoke on the job are running out of time to collect any damages from tobacco companies.
A 1997 settlement that yielded $47 million for their lawyer, Stanley Rosenblatt, and $300 million for research didn't give them a dime. They now have until Sept. 7 to file individual lawsuits for compensatory damages, and some say Rosenblatt hasn't done nearly enough to help them.
``We weren't properly taken care of like we should have been,'' said Colleen Stevens, a former flight attendant who suffers from breast cancer, liver cancer, and bone cancer.
Between 60,000 and 145,000 flight attendants are eligible to sue Philip Morris Cos. and other tobacco companies. Only 1,500 have done so with two weeks left until the filing deadline.
Norma Broin, the named plaintiff in the class-action case that led to the 1997 settlement, blames Rosenblatt. He dropped clients he promised to represent, failed to maintain a toll-free number for them to call and sent only 10,000 letters notifying them of the deadline, she says.
Rosenblatt didn't respond to five telephone calls seeking comment.
Rosenblatt has moved on to even larger legal victories against the tobacco industry since the flight attendants' case. On July 14, a jury in Miami awarded a record $145 billion in punitive damages on behalf of all Florida smokers. That jury verdict, a culmination of a two-year battle, is being contested in federal and state courts.
In the October 1997 notice of the flight-attendants accord, Rosenblatt promised to ``assist any class member in securing representation,'' and to give them ``technical assistance.'' Observers say Rosenblatt has followed the letter of the agreement but not its spirit.
``There are ways to satisfy the black letter of your responsibility,'' said anti-tobacco attorney Clifford Douglas, who has assisted Broin. ``And there are ways to satisfy the obligation in a way that . . . serves justice.''
Those who question Rosenblatt's treatment of the flight attendant lawsuits should remember that his ``reputation is impeccable and beyond reproach,'' said Clark Freshman, a law professor at the University of Miami who follows tobacco litigation.
Philip Morris, citing its involvement in pending litigation with Rosenblatt, declined to comment on his reputation.
Plaintiffs' attorneys may be hesitant to take the flight attendants' lawsuits because they are difficult: the industry has won both second-hand smoke cases to have reached a jury.
``When it comes to second-hand smoke, it's harder to tell if there are damages,'' Freshman said. ``Attorneys are business people; it's harder to tell if it's worth their time.''
Flight attendants are barred from seeking punitive damages individually, a disincentive to lawyers seeking high contingency fees.
The settlement does give the flight attendants one legal advantage. The tobacco industry agreed to accept responsibility for proving that second-hand smoke doesn't cause disease. Normally, plaintiffs have to prove it does.
Broin, 45, thinks her lung cancer was caused by more than 20 years of exposure to passengers' cigarette smoke on American Airlines.
She accepted the settlement after Rosenblatt vowed to represent her and 22 others, she says. In November 1999, Rosenblatt told Broin he would no longer be her lawyer.
``There's absolutely no excuse in my opinion why these flight attendants' lawsuits have not been filed,'' Broin said.
After the settlement, Rosenblatt and his law partner-wife, Susan, set up a Web site informing flight attendants how to get in touch with him.
The site, though, has not been updated in more than a year and some of its information is outdated, Broin said. The toll-free telephone number given on the site currently is directed to a travel agency.
Broin complained about Rosenblatt's alleged neglect in March 2000 to Florida state judge Robert Kaye, who presided in both the flight attendants' case and the class action on behalf of all Florida smokers.
Rosenblatt said he sent out about 10,000 letters to flight attendants, Broin said.
``What about the other 140,000?'' asked Broin. In 1997, Rosenblatt sent out 150,000 letters to potential class members seeking clients and giving flight attendants the opportunity to opt out of the class.
Rosenblatt was criticized by some clients when he reached the settlement, with some suing to block it. Rosenblatt defended the accord, claiming he feared a loss based on jurors' ``body language'' and diligent note-taking when defense witnesses testified.
Rosenblatt said at the time he deserved his $47 million fee based on six years of work in a long-shot cause.
``This was a monumental achievement,'' he said. ``No lawyer would go near this case in 1991.''
Steven Hunter, an attorney to whom Rosenblatt referred flight attendants, said he is still filing suits and expects the total to reach over 2,000 by Sept. 7. Hunter, along with five other law firms, have advertised in publications such as USA Today and several flight attendant union publications.
``We're filing them as fast as we can file them,'' Hunter said.