Altria Loses Tobacco Lawsuit Appeal

Altria Group Inc.’s Philip Morris USA unit—and other U.S. cigarette makers— have lost an appeal in the ongoing <"">Florida tobacco litigation. The litigation involves some 4,000 cases, said Bloomberg News.

A federal appeals court has denied the tobacco companies’ request to block lower courts from applying an earlier Florida Supreme Court decision. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court refused to reinstate the punitive damages and stripped the lawsuit, known as Engle, of its class-action status. However, the court allowed individuals who could have won judgments under the original verdict to use findings from the yearlong jury trial—including that cigarettes are addictive and cause cancer—to bring new cases against the cigarette makers. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the tobacco companies’ appeal of the Florida court’s decision, setting the stage for a deluge of tobacco injury lawsuits in the state.

But, according to the companies, there are a number of factual conclusions that were endorsed by Florida’s Supreme Court in the 2006 Engle decision that they feel should not be used against them in the individual trials, including that Big Tobacco contrived to keep significant health information on the dangers of cigarette smoking from consumers and that industry lied about their products, said Bloomberg News.

The original class action lawsuit involved thousands of Florida smokers and their families who were seeking compensation from tobacco companies for the injuries they sustained from smoking. In 1999, a jury agreed that cigarette makers deceived smokers about the safety of their product, and awarded $145 billion in punitive damages to the plaintiffs. But a Florida appeals court reversed the decision in 2003.

This week’s federal appeals court’s reversal of the district court’s pretrial ruling also states that the findings “must be given the same preclusive effect in this federal court case that they would be given if the case were in state court,” quoted Bloomberg News. And, although the ruling imposed limits on the use of the findings, it does allow the previously on-hold federal cases to proceed, noted Bloomberg News.

In addition to the 4,000 cases that were filed or moved to Florida federal courts, there exist an additional 4,000 pending cases in state courts, said Bloomberg News; this new ruling does not affect those cases.

To date, plaintiffs have won most—18 of 21—of the cases tried in state courts in Florida with judges just reading the findings from the Engle case to jurors and instructing jurors that those findings are binding, explained Bloomberg News. But now, industry is appealing these verdicts and citing that the judges delivered improper instructions resulted in their losing “Engle progeny” cases. According to a statement issued by Philip Morris, “None of the plaintiffs who have obtained verdicts in state court have complied with the requirements set forth by today’s rulings,” quoted Bloomberg News.

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