The nation's three largest tobacco companies have agreed to pay $100 million to settle roughly 400 lawsuits filed in federal court by Floridians who contended that smoking damaged their health or killed a loved one.
The settlement does not affect federal cases that have already gone to trial or are on appeal. It also doesn't affect more than 2,000 cases still wending their way though state courts. Those cases could prove far more costly to the tobacco companies if plaintiffs ultimately prevail.
All the lawsuits stem from a two-decade-old class-action suit called Engle, which propelled Florida into the center of personal injury and wrongful-death actions based on smoking. The cases dragged through federal and state courts for years until U.S. Supreme Court action last year stripped the tobacco companies of a key defense, increasing pressure on them to settle.
Lawyers on both sides hailed the settlement in news releases.
"I am gratified that we were able to reach this settlement agreement that will provide much-needed relief for our clients," said plaintiffs attorney Joe Rice of the Mt. Pleasant, S.C., law firm Motley Rice.
R.J. Reynolds vice president Jeff Raborn said the agreement "presented a unique opportunity to essentially close out the federal docket.
"With respect to the cases pending in state court," Raborn said, "we will continue to defend them vigorously, which includes appealing adverse verdicts."
Under the federal settlement, R.J. Reynolds and Phillip Morris would pay $42.5 million each; Lorillard Tobacco Co. would pay $15 million. Plaintiffs would receive individual portions based on the extent of their injuries. All must accept the settlement, or it will have to be renegotiated, R.J. Reynolds said.
The state court cases are the bigger piece of the pie. Roughly 120 had gone to juries by last year, resulting in verdicts totalling about $500 million. Most of those verdicts are on appeal. Potential liability for the tobacco companies in state court reaches into the billions of dollars.
Engle cases involve the families of smokers who became addicted in the 1950s and '60s, before strong warning labels appeared on cigarette packages. To enjoy the legal advantage that the Engle class action affords, plaintiffs had to file their individual suits by 2008. The statute of limitations would make any new cases more difficult to win.
Contact Stephen Nohlgren at [email protected]