Tobacco Case Moves To Federal Court
MIAMI (AP) - In a surprise move, the tobacco industry switched a landmark Florida smokers' case and its record-breaking $145 billion verdict to federal court Monday.
Tobacco attorneys filed a notice moving the case to federal court based on a motion filed by a union health care plan seeking to intervene on the day of the punitive damage verdict.
It was not immediately clear how the filing would affect the case, which was assigned to U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro-Benages. Smokers' attorney Stanley Rosenblatt will probably file a motion to send the case back to state court.
``They try everything and they stop at nothing to achieve their devious ends. They don't play fair,'' Rosenblatt said. ``We've got to fight.''
A copy of the federal court filing was obtained after business hours, and there was no immediate comment from tobacco companies.
The nation's five biggest cigarette makers transferred the case based on federal questions raised in the motion filed by the Southeastern Iron Workers health care plan.
The union argued some of its members were part of the class and it should be allowed to join the case. Similar motions filed this year with the trial judge, Circuit Judge Robert Kaye, were rejected.
The industry also filed a motion challenging the July 14 verdict and laying the ground work for an appeal in state courts.
Tobacco lawyers want Kaye to cut the punitive award, erase the three verdicts in the case, order a new trial or kill the case entirely by decertifying it as a class-action covering 300,000 to 700,000 sick Florida smokers.
The motion covering nearly 200 pages cites trial errors ranging from alternate jurors interacting with the six-member jury to inflammatory and improper questions and comments by Rosenblatt.
Attacking the size of the verdict, industry-leading Philip Morris Inc. said in a statement that the award was unconstitutionally excessive, the result of ``passion and prejudice,'' based on ``speculation and conjecture'' and ``beyond what was necessary to effectuate any punishment or deterrence.''
The industry had asked Kaye to order jurors to return an award no greater than the companies' audited net worth of $15.3 billion, but the judge refused to impose any limit.
The jury decided in July 1999 that the industry makes a deadly product, ordered the industry in April to pay $12.7 million in compensatory damages to the three smokers representing the class and deliberated five hours before setting an all-time record for a civil trial award.
The industry immediately expressed confidence that the case would be thrown out on appeal.
Some state officials worry that the verdict could endanger an industry commitment to pay them about $10 billion a year under tobacco lawsuit settlements reached in 1997 and 1998 with all 50 states.
The other defendants are R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, Lorillard, Liggett and the industry's defunct Council for Tobacco Research and Tobacco Institute.