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Tobacco plaintiff speaks out in frustration and outrage

Few of us may recall that a Pasco County man who runs the Bagel Queen in New Port Richey is part of a very big business tale and legal battle involving a very big number.

$145,000,000,000, to be precise. That's $145-billion.

Ralph Della Vecchia was one of the representatives of a Florida class-action lawsuit brought against the nation's largest tobacco companies. Three years ago this month, a jury rendered a $145-billion judgment in punitive damages against the tobacco giants for deceiving Florida's 700,000 sick smokers about the deadly nature of their cigarette products. It was at the time the largest civil damage award in U.S. history.

But in May of this year, three state appellate judges threw out that judgment, saying in a 68-page opinion that the smokers' case never should have gone to trial as a class action. Instead, they said, each Florida smoker _ nearly three-quarters of a million of them _ would have to file individual lawsuits.

Now two Miami lawyers are expected as early as this week to renew their long legal fight against the U.S. tobacco industry. The husband-and-wife team of Stanley and Susan Rosenblatt has battled the tobacco industry since 1994 and won (temporarily, at least) the huge judgment in 2000.

They're taking another shot at reviving the $145-billion judgment _ or perhaps some smaller figure _ with a simple argument. How can the same appellate court that approved the original class action in 1996 reverse its own verdict?

That suits Della Vecchia just fine. His wife, Angie, was one of three smokers originally chosen to represent the many plaintiffs. She died of cancer, which had spread from her lungs to her brain, in 1999. Ralph then joined the suit on her behalf.

The three plaintiffs won $12.7-million in damages for lost wages and pain and suffering, and thus opened the class action's next stage, in which all 700,000 smokers could seek punitive damages.

For two years, Ralph Della Vecchia sat in a courtroom only a few feet from a jury that would decide the legal fate of Florida's sick smokers. For two years, Della Vecchia lived mostly in a Miami hotel room not far from the downtown courtroom.

For two years, he tried not to stare _ as he had been instructed by the court _ at the men and women of the jury who were listening to convoluted arguments from the tobacco industry about who was responsible for using an unhealthy and addictive product that Big Tobacco readily made and aggressively marketed in exchange for billions in profits. The jury delivered the $145-billion judgment against Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, Lorillard and the Liggett Group.

When the 3rd District Court of Appeal in May shredded the $145-billion judgment, Della Vecchia was under his lawyer's orders to say little other than express his disappointment.

No more. Now 67, Della Vecchia on Tuesday called me from his Bagel Queen store. For the first time he shared his hopes about a new appeal and his frustrations during a prolonged battle against the deepest of business pockets: tobacco. Here are some excerpts from a man on a mission.

Q: Why are you calling me to talk now?

Della Vecchia: We had a gag order not to talk during the trial, a trial that filled 55,000 pages and one in which we won three phases. We were not allowed to say anything.

Q: What went through your mind when the court in May threw out the $145-billion award?

Della Vecchia: I was outraged. I was devastated. My wife, who will be gone four years on July 25, is probably rolling in her grave. She was the sweetest lady you'll ever meet.

Q: Are you up for another legal battle, another appeal?

Della Vecchia: I hope they fight it all the way to the end. I know I will fight even if (the class-action lawsuit is not reinstated and) I have to sue as a single plaintiff.

Q: The tobacco companies argued they would go bankrupt if they had to pay out $145-billion in damages? Do you believe them?

Della Vecchia: At the beginning, I thought $145-billion was a lot. But it never would bankrupt five big tobacco companies. They make billions a year just selling tobacco overseas. Any jerk knows that.

Q: It must be wild to be handed a $145-billion judgment and then see it taken away.

Della Vecchia: It was the greatest day when we won in July of 2000. We were hugging and kissing and crying. Then when it got knocked down this year, we all cried again.

Q: What was it like spending two whole years in a courtroom?

Della Vecchia: I used to laugh sometimes. It was often 20 tobacco lawyers against our one attorney. Every time the judge called a sidebar, 10 of their lawyers would go and stand by our tiny Stanley (Rosenblatt).

Q: What's different since the trial, since you and a partner have been running your own (Bagel Queen) business?

Della Vecchia: Busy. I have not seen my friends in a year and a half. At the start, I was in by 3 a.m. to start baking bagels and here until 6. It was something I knew nothing about. I am fussy when it comes to the bagels.

Q: So how's business?

Della Vecchia: Up and down and up and down. At 67, I should not be working. (He laughs) But it keeps me young. I look like I am 52.

Q: Do you think an appeal's got any chance of success?

Della Vecchia: I have a positive attitude. If this appeal does fall through, we will take it to the Florida Supreme Court.

_ Robert Trigaux can be reached at or (727) 893-8405.