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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.

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In essence, Hess's lawyers need to prove only that he was a nicotine addict for the action to continue to a compensatory damages phase.

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"That shouldn't be too terribly difficult," Douglas says. "We already know that the vast majority of smokers are dependent on the product. In some fashion, all the cases will resemble that process".

The tobacco industry has the resources to fight the cases. Nonetheless, "the risk to the tobacco industry is significant," he adds. "It's still a lot of money, and that and the adverse publicity will raise the concern of companies' investors and shareholders."

Philip Morris USA, the defendant in the large majority of the Florida cases, is digging in for a long fight and has hired experienced outside counsel.

"Philip Morris USA intends to offer a vigorous defense for each individual case that goes to trial," says Murray Garnick, senior vice president and associate general counsel of client services for Atria, the cigarette company's parent. "Already we have learned that many of these plaintiffs have no legally valid claims. For those who proceed to trial, we believe each plaintiff must prove the essential elements of their claims and that we continue to have very strong defenses to these type of cases."

Big Tobacco has enjoyed some success in federal courts, which are handling about half of the Florida cases. Judges in three actions have ruled that the state court's 2006 ruling is not valid in their courtrooms, so about 4,000 cases are in suspension until the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit rules on the matter later this year.

Those who follow the fight on a national level say the 8,000 Florida cases extend an already busy period of antitobacco litigation. According to Michigan-based Tobacco Control Law and Policy Consulting, tobacco firms faced a greater number and variety of legal actions between 1995 and 2005 than in previous years, with plaintiffs winning about 40 percent of the 75 cases and $115 million in compensation and healthcare-recovery costs.

Another long-running battle reached the US Supreme Court last month when justices ruled 5 to 4 not to shield manufacturers from fraud lawsuits over whether so-called light cigarettes really contained less tar and nicotine than full-strength products. It clears the path for another massive wave of lawsuits.

Howard Acosta, a St. Petersburg, Fla., attorney and member of the Tobacco Trial Lawyers' Association, has taken on about 400 of the upcoming cases.

The tobacco firms "never made it easy and have teams of lawyers working these cases," says Mr. Acosta, who won $3.2 million from Philip Morris in 2005 for a smoker diagnosed with lung disease in 2003. "But this is too important an issue not to fight. I've been involved in these cases since 1995, and I think I'm still going to be fighting them for some time yet."