Florida Personal Injury Lawsuits to Hang over Tobacco Companies Like a Cloud of Smoke?

By: Gerri L. Elder

A court ruling in Florida has made personal injury lawsuits against tobacco companies easier to win, and therefore the cigarette makers are now facing thousands of new lawsuits by injured smokers.

Personal injury lawyers in Florida were in high gear, filing individual claims before the January 11th deadline after the Florida Supreme Court overturned a $145 billion award for punitive damages. The award, which was the largest in history, was overturned in July 2006, but at the same time, the court upheld the jury findings that the tobacco companies were negligent and sold defective products. This ruling is important, as it will apply to all of the new cases that have now been filed.

The court ruling in Florida may be bad news for cigarette makers; however Philip Morris Vice President and Associate General Counsel William S. Ohlemeyer feel that the company will have great success in defending the personal injury lawsuits filed against them. Phillip Morris is the largest cigarette manufacturer in the United States and now faces personal injury lawsuits on behalf of about 1,700 dead and injured smokers. That number is expected to rise as the total number of lawsuits is tallied.

Reynolds American's R.J. Reynolds has reported about 1,650 personal injury claims against their company so far, and are also confident that they will be able to effectively defend themselves in the lawsuits.

The landmark Florida Supreme Court ruling came in the case of a class action lawsuit named the "Engle case" after lead plaintiff Howard Engle. The class action lawsuit was filed in 1994 on behalf of an estimated 700,000 smokers in the state of Florida. Six years into the case, a Miami jury awarded $145 billion in punitive damages to the class.

The award for punitive damages was, of course, appealed by the tobacco industry and in July 2006, the Florida Supreme Court decided that it was not valid, and said that the personal injury claims of smokers could not be tried all together in a class action lawsuit. Instead, the court indicated that members of the class action lawsuit, meaning addicted smokers who became ill by 1996, had one year to file personal injury lawsuits individually, beginning January 11, 2007.

Although the Florida Supreme Court voided the award for punitive damages, it did give the injured smokers some advantages when filing their individual personal injury lawsuits. The jury findings that smoking causes lung cancer, coronary heart disease and other diseases and that the companies sold unreasonably dangerous products and concealed information about the dangers of smoking were upheld. That means that the injured smokers and the families of the deceased smokers who have now filed claims aren't starting back at square one, as this finding will apply to the new personal injury lawsuits that they have filed.

The personal injury lawyers for the plaintiffs in all of the new lawsuits hope that by having the Florida Supreme Court uphold these jury findings, the trial courts in Florida will find that this means the tobacco companies are liable, and that there will be no reason for the plaintiffs to do anything more that prove the amount of their damages.

Lawyers for the tobacco companies hope that they will be able to argue that they are not entirely liable and will not have to shoulder the blame for smokers who picked up the habit. They will also likely argue that the diseases of smokers were not caused entirely by smoking, and insist that each case be tried individually.

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