Fla. court relieves cigarette makers of $145b liability
But ruling says individual smokers were misled, can sue
TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Supreme Court lifted a huge burden from US tobacco companies yesterday when it threw out a record $145 billion punitive damage award against them even though it agreed the companies had misled smokers about the dangers of lighting up.
The court also ruled that individual smokers could sue the companies -- and gave plaintiffs a potent legal weapon by upholding the trial jury's finding that the companies had negligently misled the public about the dangers and addictive nature of cigarettes.
The court, which deemed the July 2000 award excessive, also approved an appellate court ruling that it had been a mistake to certify the lawsuit as a class-action representing an estimated 300,000 to 700,000 Floridians made ill by smoking.
``It's a big sigh of relief, I'm sure, for big tobacco, especially in terms of the punitive damages," University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias said of the ruling. ``I think Wall Street reflects that."
Tobacco stocks jumped on the news that the court had rejected an award that the industry said was potentially ruinous. It also could clear a path for
Altria Group shares rose $4.43, or 6 percent, to close at $77.76 yesterday on the New York Stock Exchange after briefly rising to a new 52-week high of $79.10.
Analysts expect Altria will spin off its 87.6 percent stake in Kraft Foods sometime after the resolution of the case in Florida, led by pediatrician Howard Engle, and the federal government's civil-racketeering case.
Shares of Reynolds American Inc., the second-biggest domestic cigarette maker, rose $4.59, or 4 percent, to $118.95 after earlier hitting a new 52-week high of $120.99. Reynolds American owns the US tobacco businesses of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco and Brown and Williamson.
``The damages would have been crippling to businesses," said R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. spokesman David Howard, who added that the Winston-Salem, N.C.-based company is reviewing the ruling. ``It was excessive. . . . As a matter of law, punitive damages are not intended to put people out of business."
William S. Ohlemeyer, Philip Morris USA vice president and associate general counsel, said, ``As numerous trial and appellate courts have held, tobacco cases cannot be treated as class actions because liability must ultimately be decided on a case-by-case basis."
Ohlemeyer said Philip Morris is reviewing the ruling and deciding if more appellate action is necessary.
The class-action trial lasted for two years, but the seven jurors deliberated less than five hours to reach the $145 billion verdict in 2000. The jury that decided the punitive damages said Philip Morris should pay nearly $74 billion, Reynolds more than $36 billion, Brown and Williamson more than $17.5 billion, Lorillard tobacco $16.25 billion, and the Liggett Group $790 million.
And while the justices rejected the punitive damages award in the verdict as excessive, a majority of the state's high court reinstated a $2.85 million damage judgment to Mary Farnan and a $4.02 million judgment to Angie Della Vecchia, who started smoking as an 11-year-old and died in 1999.
Farnan broke into tears upon hearing of the court's decision from The Associated Press.
``Oh my God, I can't believe it," she said. ``I'm shaking all over. I had no idea."
A $5.8 million award to Frank Amodeo -- who, like Farnan and Della Vecchia, was cancer-stricken and blamed that on his smoking habit -- was not restored in yesterday's ruling because it fell outside the statute of limitations. Amodeo's wife, Margaret, told The Associated Press that her husband had not spoken with a lawyer about the ruling and therefore did not have any immediate reaction.
The suit led by Engle was filed a decade ago in Miami by the husband-and-wife legal team of Stanley and Susan Rosenblatt.
Stanley Rosenblatt said yesterday that he was disappointed with the decision, but was relieved that the Supreme Court said individuals can sue and that the tobacco industry had misled the public.
``That they lied and were negligent, all those findings can be used and cannot be challenged in the individual cases as they go forward," he said.
Tim Howard, who teaches constitutional law and judicial process at Boston University, said the court's decision ``opened the door to a hundred thousand suits taking place in Florida for all those that are sick and dying or injured from these products."
Several antismoking groups said they were saddened by the ruling.
``While disappointing, this ruling is not the clear-cut victory the tobacco industry was hoping for," said Matthew Myers, president of the Washington-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, referring to the court's ruling that individuals can still sue.
Myers suggested tougher legislation at the federal and state levels and more money for tobacco prevention programs.
Six of the seven justices heard the case. Justice Raoul Cantero did not participate.