Florida Supreme Court affirms verdict in smoker's death, reapproving landmark 1996 decision

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida’s highest court decided Thursday not to upset its own landmark decision that makes it easier for thousands of sick smokers or their survivors to pursue lawsuits against tobacco companies.

In a 6-1 decision, the Florida Supreme Court affirmed a $2.5 million Tampa jury verdict in the death of smoker Charlotte Douglas. Justice Charles Canady dissented.

The majority re-approved the court’s “Engle” decisions accepting that Big Tobacco knowingly sold dangerous products and hid the hazards of cigarette smoking. The Engle cases say individual smokers can file their own suits but don’t have to prove those factors again in their cases.

Plaintiffs do have to show that they or their dead relatives were addicted to smoking, couldn’t quit and that cigarettes caused illness or death.

David Boies, the New York lawyer representing Philip Morris USA, had argued that procedure violates the due process rights of his client and other tobacco companies, including R.J. Reynolds Tobacco and Liggett Group.

Murray Garnick, senior vice-president for Altria, Philip Morris’ parent company, said the company now was “considering all of our options.”

“We believe that the court ruled incorrectly in allowing individual plaintiffs to use the general findings from the prior Engle cases to prove their … claims without showing that any wrongful conduct actually caused their injuries,” Garnick said in a written statement.

Jon Mills, a Tallahassee attorney who represents tobacco plaintiffs, said the companies keep trying — unsuccessfully — to challenge well-established law.

“Their whole due process argument has been, ‘we just don’t know which cigarette they’re talking about,’ but that doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s settled that cigarettes were sold by these defendants, contained nicotine and were dangerous … It doesn’t matter what brand or what particular cigarette.”

Justice Canady disagreed, writing that the Engle decisions were enough to establish that some, but not all, cigarettes sold by the defendants were “defective and unreasonably dangerous.”

“Nor is it sufficient to establish that the particular brands of cigarettes consumed by Mrs. Douglas were defective and unreasonably dangerous,” Canady wrote.

Attorney Steven Brannock of Tampa represents James Douglas, Charlotte Douglas’ surviving spouse.

“We thought this is the way they were going to go,” he said. “The court agreed with all our arguments and how Engle was decided.

“The tobacco companies have gotten more due process than any company has ever gotten,” Brannock added.

The Engle decisions turned Florida into a favoured venue for plaintiffs seeking damages from tobacco companies.

In the past, cigarette manufacturers won when it was too hard to prove that cigarettes caused a particular illness, or when jurors decided plaintiffs need to be responsible for their decision to smoke. Now, plaintiffs have won more than $360 million in damage awards in only about two dozen cases.

Still more cases are lined up in Florida, which had more pending smoking-related lawsuits than any other state.

A 1998 mega-settlement resulted in four cigarette companies ponying up $206 billion to 46 states that claimed smoking drove up public health costs.

In 2006, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., found the six largest tobacco companies guilty of racketeering and fraud for deceiving the public about the dangers of smoking. The ruling, upheld by an appeals court in May 2009, requires that cigarette manufacturers change the way they market cigarettes.

The ruling was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the justices declined to hear it.


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