Tobacco Companies Suffer Legal Setback

For the thousands of ill smokers who are seeking damages against the tobacco industry, Thursday’s decision by the Florida Supreme Court was a mixed bag. On one hand, the justices agreed with an appellate court’s decision to reverse the $145 billion in punitive damages awarded in 2000 in a landmark class-action suit against cigarette makers. The court also decided to decertify the class, saying that the remaining issues “are highly individualized and do not lend themselves to class action treatment.”

However, the 4-2 decision also delivered some promising news for the petitioners: Sick smokers will still be allowed to bring individual claims against the cigarette makers. In their decision, the justices said that “the class should be decertified without prejudice to the class members filing individual claims within one year of the issuance of our mandate.”

In the original decision in the case of Engle vs. Liggett Group et al, the final judgment awarded $12.7 million in compensatory damages to three individual plaintiffs and $145 billion in punitive damages to the entire class, but the Third District Court of Appeal reversed that judgment. On Thursday, the state’s highest court said, “although we approve the Third District’s reversal of the $145 billion class action punitive damages award, we quash the remainder of the Third District’s decision.” Two of the three individual plaintiffs in the original suit will have their compensatory awards reinstated.

Cigarette makers, including Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, Lorillard, and the Liggett Group, are considering whether–and how–to appeal the decision. However, as the ruling currently stands, plaintiffs do not have to wait until the appeal is heard before pursuing their own individual legal actions. The original decision cited the health dangers of smoking, the addictiveness of nicotine, and misleading marketing by the industry as reasons why the companies are liable.

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