Product Liability Law

Thousands of Fla. Tobacco Suits Filed as Deadline Looms

When the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 invalidated a $145 million punitive damages award in a class action case against the tobacco industry, it gave the plaintiffs a year to file individual claims, starting on Jan. 11, 2007.

At the same time, the court also made it easier for the plaintiffs to prove their cases, upholding jury findings in the class action that the cigarette manufacturers were negligent and sold defective products and ruling that these findings would also apply in the new cases, reports Bloomberg. Now, as the deadline looms for bringing these tobacco cases individually, plaintiffs lawyers have filed thousands of them—and some of them think as many as 10,000 will be filed—and counsel on both sides of the litigation are putting on their game faces.

”The industry is in a bad position in Florida,” says Robert Kelley, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer whose firm represents about 100 plaintiffs. “There are a lot of really good trial lawyers filing these cases.”

Plaintiff lawyers are arguing that the 1996 supreme court ruling now requires their clients mainly to prove damages, the newspaper writes.

But William Ohlemeyer, vice president and associate general counsel of the Philip Morris USA division of Altria Group Inc., predicts a defense victory. Potential defenses for Philip Morris, which is the largest U.S. cigarette manufacturer, include holding the plaintiffs accountable for choosing to smoke and noting that their diseases may have been caused by something other than cigarettes. Cigarette makers will also push to try cases individually, rather than in groups.

“The plaintiffs’ lawyers, I think, are engaging in a little wishful thinking,” he says. “It’s going to be a much more complicated situation than many of these lawyers have suggested to their clients.”

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