[author: by Sylvia Hsieh]
Big tobacco companies are exposed to billions of dollars in damages in Florida smokers’ lawsuits now that they’ve lost their attempt to overturn multi-million dollar verdicts when the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear their appeal.
The high court let stand four verdicts in favor of smokers, totaling over $53 million, including a $28.3 million award to Mathilde Martin for the death of her husband, Benny, from lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking Camels and Lucky Strikes. That award included $25 million in punitive damages against R.J. Reynolds.
Dozens of similar cases have gone to trial in Florida under a ruling that lets smokers who sue tobacco companies borrow from findings in a 2006 class action lawsuit, such as that tobacco companies were negligent, hid information about health risks of smoking and sold defective products. The ruling is known as the Engle case, named after Howard Engle, a pediatrician who developed cancer after smoking cigarettes and led the class action lawsuit.
R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris and other cigarette makers wanted the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the ruling, contesting that it violated the constitutional due process rights of the corporations.
“This was a major effort by the tobacco companies to get review and try to cut off their liability,” said Robert Peck, a lawyer and president of the Center for Constitutional Litigation, who asked the Supreme Court to let Martin’s verdict stand.
Tobacco companies still face roughly 8,000 lawsuits by Florida smokers that will be tried individually and could run up a liability tab in the billions.
A “dark cloud” has been lifted from those lawsuits, said Ed Sweda, Jr., senior attorney for the Tobacco Products Liability Project.
“There was the possibility that however much you win, it could all be thrown out on appeal if the higher-ups agreed with the due process argument. That argument is out of the picture now,” said Sweda.
The Supreme Court did not say why they refused to hear the case, and could take up the issue in a future case.
According to Sweda, who keeps a scorecard on the tobacco litigation, smokers have won 40 of the 61 – or two out of every three - cases that have gone to a jury. However, most cases never get that far, since there are very specific requirements for a successful suit. An experienced attorney can help you determine if you have a credible case.