First of 8,000 antitobacco suits to go to trial in Florida
Once part of a huge class action lawsuit, plaintiffs are now waging fights one at a time.
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
A civil case that begins Thursday in a courtroom here not only brands Florida as a hotbed of tobacco litigation, but also marks the advance of a huge stream of lawsuits against America's largest cigarette manufacturers.Skip to next paragraph
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About 8,000 plaintiffs are lined up to sue Big Tobacco in the Florida court system, a conveyor belt of cases that is likely to clog the calendars of state and federal judges for months, if not years, to come.
This wave of lawsuits from smokers, or their estates, stems from a 2006 ruling in the Florida Supreme Court that broke up a class action suit of more than 700,000 plaintiffs and quashed a $145 billion award against the tobacco industry, the biggest penalty in US civil court history.
While closing one door, the justices opened another, giving all plaintiffs one year to file an individual claim for damages against cigarette-makers.
The first case to make it to a full trial gets under way Thursday, when the widow of Stuart Hess, a locksmith from Cooper City, Fla., attempts to hold industry leader Philip Morris liable for his death in 1997.
"Florida has become a hotbed of litigation against the tobacco industry, and while the cases are difficult to litigate, it's interesting because so many are coming to the fore," says Cliff Douglas, executive director of the University of Michigan Tobacco Research Network. "We are easily talking years before anything is concluded because every successful individual case is going to enter several years of appellate litigation."
The Hess trial is sure to be closely watched by the next wave of plaintiffs, defendants, teams of lawyers, and judges. Another 25 cases or so are on district court dockets in Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, and Jacksonville to be heard before the end of April, and judges are trying to schedule time for dozens more before year's end.
In accordance with the 2006 high court ruling, each case will start from the same premise: that cigarette-makers were aware their products were "defective" yet misled the public over their health effects. The need is to prove that each individual plaintiff was harmed by an addiction to the products they smoked.
Nobody disputes that Mr. Hess, who smoked two to three packs a day from the age of 13, knew that cigarettes were bad for him. The question is what stopped him from quitting. His widow's lawyers will say he tried but couldn't because nicotine has addictive properties that Philip Morris tried to conceal. Kenneth Reilly, the lawyer for the cigarette-maker, will argue that Hess chose to smoke despite being aware of the dangers.