MIAMI — A Florida Supreme Court ruling that threw out a $145 billion award against cigarette makers is biting Big Tobacco back, making it dramatically easier for thousands of smokers to sue and turning the state into the nation's hot spot for damage awards.
The 2006 ruling has helped generate more than $360 million in damage awards in only about two dozen cases. Thousands more cases are in the pipeline in Florida, which has far more smoking-related lawsuits pending than any other state.
Though the justices tossed the $145 billion class-action damage award, they allowed about 8,000 individual members of that class to pursue their own lawsuits. And in a critical decision, they allowed those plaintiffs to use the original jury's findings from the class-action case.
That means the plaintiffs don't have to prove that cigarette makers sold a defective and dangerous product, were negligent and hid the risks of smoking or that cigarettes cause illnesses such as lung cancer and heart disease.
Jurors have sided with smokers or their families in about two-thirds of the 34 cases tried since February 2009. Awards have ranged from $2 million or less to $80 million, though tobacco companies are appealing them all.
Tobacco company lawyers insist the process is rigged.
"We believe the trial courts have used trial plans that are so fundamentally unfair they violate due process and Florida law," said Murray Garnick of Altria Client Services, which represents Philip Morris USA. "Each case must be judged on its own facts."
The tobacco companies, however, have lost their first appeal over how Florida courts are handling the cases. The state's 1st District Court of Appeal ruled against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in December, upholding a $28.3 million verdict for a dead smoker's wife and endorsing the way trial judges have interpreted the state Supreme Court's decision.
Steven J. Hammer, an attorney whose Fort Lauderdale firm is handling hundreds of smoker lawsuits, said the Florida cases have changed the balance of power in the courtroom because tobacco companies are prevented from arguing that their products aren't necessarily dangerous and addictive.
"As a result, the whole story is being told: how they lied to the public, all for the almighty dollar," he said.
A jury in North Florida's Levy County granted the largest award issued under the Supreme Court ruling, $80 million, to the daughter of a man who died of lung cancer in 1996 after smoking for decades. Others awarded $46.3 million to a widow in the Gainesville area who lost her husband to lung cancer and almost $39 million to a Fort Lauderdale woman suffering from advanced emphysema after smoking Philip Morris' Benson & Hedges brand for years.
If the losing trend and multimillion-dollar verdicts continue, some legal experts said, the tobacco companies may rethink their long-standing policy against settling smokers' lawsuits.