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Florida Supreme Court upholds verdict in smoker's death

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's highest court decided Thursday not to upset its own landmark decision that makes it easier for thousands of sick smokers or their survivors to pursue lawsuits against tobacco companies.

In a 6-1 decision, the Florida Supreme Court affirmed a $2.5 million Tampa jury verdict in the death of smoker Charlotte Douglas. Justice Charles Canady dissented.

The majority reapproved the court's "Engle" decisions accepting that Big Tobacco knowingly sold dangerous products and hid the hazards of cigarette smoking. The Engle cases say individual smokers can file their own suits but don't have to prove those factors again in their cases.

Plaintiffs do have to show that they or their dead relatives were addicted to smoking, couldn't quit and that cigarettes caused illness or death.

David Boies, the New York lawyer representing Philip Morris USA, had argued that procedure violates the due process rights of his client and other tobacco companies, including R.J. Reynolds Tobacco and Liggett Group.

Murray Garnick, senior vice president for Altria, Philip Morris' parent company, said the company now was "considering all of our options."

"We believe that the court ruled incorrectly in allowing individual plaintiffs to use the general findings from the prior Engle cases to prove their . . . claims without showing that any wrongful conduct actually caused their injuries," Garnick said in a written statement.

Jon Mills, a Tallahassee attorney who represents tobacco plaintiffs, said the companies keep trying — unsuccessfully — to challenge well-established law.

"Their whole due process argument has been, 'we just don't know which cigarette they're talking about,' but that doesn't matter," he said. "It's settled that cigarettes were sold by these defendants, contained nicotine and were dangerous . . . It doesn't matter what brand or what particular cigarette."

Justice Canady disagreed, writing that the Engle decisions were enough to establish that some, but not all, cigarettes sold by the defendants were "defective and unreasonably dangerous."

"Nor is it sufficient to establish that the particular brands of cigarettes consumed by Mrs. Douglas were defective and unreasonably dangerous," Canady wrote.

Florida Supreme Court upholds verdict in smoker's death 03/14/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 14, 2013 10:34pm]
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