FLORIDA: Jury Awards $12.7M to Class Action Smokers
A Miami, Fla., jury Friday delivered the first verdict ever in favor of smokers in a class action lawsuit, awarding three Floridians $12.7 million in compensatory damages to pay for smoking-related health problems, the Miami Herald reports. The verdict sets "the stage for a legal brawl over punitive damages that could run to billions of dollars," as the class action suit represents some 500,000 Florida smokers (Field, 4/8). Plaintiff Mary Farnan, a 44-year-old nurse with lung and brain cancer, received $2.85 million; the estate of Angie Della Vecchia, who died last year, was awarded $4 million; and the jury granted Frank Amodeo $5.8 million, although that award was blocked by jurors, who said he had filed his claim too late (Kaufman, Washington Post, 4/8). Circuit Judge Robert Kaye will decide whether Amodeo is entitled to collect the damages. By finding for the plaintiffs, the six-member civil jury rejected the tobacco industry's argument that smokers who refused to quit had "made themselves ineligible for compensation for health problems that resulted from a cigarette habit." Jurors found, however, that Amodeo was 25% responsible for his illness, while Della Vecchia was 15% liable, and Farnan was 20% at fault; each plaintiff's award will be reduced by the amount of his or her liability. Antitobacco activists hailed the verdict. Edward Sweda, an attorney for the Tobacco Products Liability Project, said, "We're delighted ... I think the jury really saw through the smoke screen of the blame-the-victim defense" (Miami Herald, 4/8). Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids President Matt Myers added that the "verdict itself is a potentially crippling blow to the tobacco industry because it opens the door now to a possible massive punitive damage verdict." According to Myers, the award's size shows that the jury did not forget earlier testimony (Wilson, AP/Washington Times, 4/9). "[T]hey are still angry," he said.
Tobacco officials say damages could reach a "ruinous $300 billion," potentially jeopardizing a 1998 settlement with state attorneys general for $246 billion and driving the companies into bankruptcy. Defendants in the case -- Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, Lorillard Tobacco, Ligett Group, the Council for Tobacco Research and the Tobacco Institute -- said they will appeal, arguing that the cases were not "tried appropriately as class actions." William Ohlemeyer, associate general counsel for Philip Morris Cos., said, "The jury found different percentages of fault with each individual, and that tells us these should be considered case by case, and not in a common-issues trial." R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. added that appeals based on other grounds also will follow, noting, "The errors committed by the trial judge ... are too numerous to mention, but all of them will be raised during our appeal." State law requires compensatory damages to be considered individually for each Florida smoker before any punitive awards can be levied, according to Florida Attorney General Robert Butterworth (D), meaning that the punitive phase of the case could be delayed for years (Washington Post, 4/8).