Bill to shield tobacco industry from damages in Engle lawsuits in limbo
The Florida House Civil Justice Subcommittee adjourned its meeting early on Tuesday, with time to spare, but did not take up a bill intended to shield the tobacco industry from punitive damages in thousands of pending cases from injured Florida smokers.
The bill, HB 1067 sponsored by Rep. David Santiago, R-Deltona, would retroactively apply a 1999 cap on punitive damages to any claims that were filed before that date. The measure would effectively limiting the potential payments to about 4,500 Florida smokers and their families who have sued cigarette makers but are still awaiting trial over claims that the industry deceived them about the dangerous and addictive properties of cigarettes.
The industry claims it is a fairness issue and the lawsuits unfairly give plaintiffs an advantage in the state, which has more tobacco cases pending that any other state. Sitting in the audience, prepared to testify, were plaintiffs and family members who were victims of the tobacco industry's deceptive practices.
The committee has one last chance to take up the bill, when it meets again in two weeks, but questions remain about whether there are enough votes on the committee to pass it. The companion bill, SB 978 by Senator Garrett Richter, R-Naples, has been referred to two Senate committees but has not been heard in that chamber either.
The tobacco companies have hired more than 40 lobbyists, not including another 50-plus lobbyists who are also working on litigation reform as part of the state and federal tort reform efforts which the tobacco industry has long supported. The trial lawyers are opposing the effort and created a website to court public opinion www.nobigtobaccobailout.com.
The Engle case was the first smokers’ class action to come to trial in a U.S. court. A Miami-Dade jury, after hearing 157 witnesses in two years, decided that the industry had intentionally misled smokers about cigarettes’ dangers and awarded a record-breaking $145 billion in damages in 2000.
The industry appealed and, in 2006, the Florida Supreme Court tossed out the award and ruled that smokers must prove individually that cigarettes caused their illness. The high court also decertified the class-action filed on behalf of approximately 700,000 smokers, but let stand that the tobacco manufacturers committed fraud by deceiving smokers about the addictive nature and harmful effects of cigarettes. Read more about the proposal here.