Big Tobacco wins two recent Florida smoking cases but thousands of lawsuits await trial
Wake up and good morning. Florida's ground zero for tobacco litigation in America and this week things have been heating up. In Manatee County, a jury on Wednesday decided that some of the nation’s largest tobacco companies were not responsible for causing a man’s laryngeal cancer after he smoked cigarettes for about 37 years. As reported in this story by the Bradenton Herald, Jimmie P. Willis, who is in his early 70s, began smoking when he was a teenager and now has a quarter-sized hole in his throat. He's spent about $412,000 for surgeries and treatment for laryngeal cancer, lung cancer, bladder cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Jurors were asked whether to award compensatory damages to Willis. But after deliberating for five hours, the jury of five women and two men ended the 3 1/2-week retrial of Willis’ lawsuit by siding with defendants that include tobacco giants Philip Morris USA and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. (Art above by Don Morris of the St. Petersburg Times.)
This is the second lawsuit Philip Morris USA has won this week in Florida. A Duval County jury earlier returned a verdict favoring tobacco companies in a similar case.
Two down. Thousands to go. About 8,000 lawsuits claiming injuries or death due to smoking are pending in Florida, more cases than the tobacco industry is facing in all other states combined.
According to this Wall Street Journal story, since 2009, when the first of these cases went to trial, plaintiffs have won 19 out of 25 verdicts against three tobacco companies, in different courts across the state. Plaintiffs have amassed more than $250 million in damages (see charts above), according to Morgan Stanley and company filings. That compares to about $24 million won in damages against the same companies in cases outside the state during the same time period.
Why are tobacco lawsuits crammed into Florida? Because of a decision by the Florida Supreme Court decision four years ago that gives plaintiffs a big advantage. Ruling on a 1994 class-action lawsuit, named for one of the lead plaintiffs in the case, Howard Engle, the court decided that the factual findings made by the jury in that case would be binding in future smoking cases heard in Florida. Among the findings: tobacco companies sold cigarettes that were "defective" and "unreasonably dangerous" and concealed the dangers of smoking.
In other words, those findings are a given in each of the 8,000 Florida lawsuits. Attorneys representing smokers do not have to prove any of those contentions each time they go to court. But this does not mean more lawsuits are building up in the Florida courts. The number of Engle-based cases cannot grow, since plaintiffs had a 2008 deadline to file suit. Here's a St. Petersburg Times column I wrote on Florida's tobacco status earlier this year.
-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist