MIAMI — Tens of thousands of ill Florida smokers and families of those who died are lining up for a share of a $600-million fund created by major tobacco companies as part of a 14-year-old lawsuit against cigarette manufacturers.
The Florida Supreme Court in 2006 threw out a massive $145-billion damage award in the case, but the tobacco companies had previously set up the fund to be paid out even if the appeal failed. Last week, a Miami judge ordered the money divided equally among all Florida smokers who became ill before Nov. 21, 1996.
"It applies to people across the state of Florida," said attorney Bob Kelley, who added Monday that his firm will represent about 1,000 smokers or family members.
The total number of people who could qualify is estimated at between 10,000 and 50,000.
A notice dated Friday from Circuit Judge David C. Miller sets a registration deadline of June 16 for the Engle Trust Fund, named for Miami Beach pediatrician Howard Engle who led the original group that filed the lawsuit in 1994. Applications can be mailed or filed via the Internet and will be available later this week at engletrustfund.com.
People who seek damages must submit proof of illnesses such as cancer, emphysema and heart disease that are linked to cigarette smoking.
Some of the people involved in the case from the beginning are unhappy that Miller decided to distribute the money equally rather than focusing on the original class. Gregg Duyser, a 55-year-old Hollywood man suffering from emphysema and other ailments, said he was initially told he might get as much as $28-million.
Now, it'll be only a fraction of that.
"It just seems wrong. It's getting way off track," Duyser said. "It's not supposed to be opening up the floodgates."
Tobacco company officials said they would vigorously defend themselves against the individual lawsuits. They also questioned whether people would be able to prove that misleading statements in cigarette advertising were a key factor in their decisions to smoke.
The defendant companies were Philip Morris USA; R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.; Brown & Williamson; Lorillard Tobacco; and the Liggett Group.