Tobacco Industry Appeal Falls on Deaf Ears at Supreme Court

The tobacco industry was dealt a major blow yesterday, when the US Supreme Court refused to consider an appeal filed by several companies that aimed to prevent <"">Florida smokers with claims against cigarette makers from using a previous jury’s findings in their lawsuits. The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the tobacco companies’ appeal could make it far easier for plaintiffs in that state to win lawsuits against big tobacco.

The Supreme Court’s decision is a stunning reversal of fortune for the tobacco companies, who had so far been successful in their attempts to have much of a jury’s 1999 verdict from a class action lawsuit nullified. In R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. vs. Engle, the jury agreed that cigarette makers had deceived smokers about the safety of their product, and awarded $145 billion in punitive damages to the plaintiffs. But in 2003, a Florida appeals court had reversed that decision. Then, in 2006 the Florida Supreme Court refused to reinstate the punitive damages and did not revive the lawsuit’s class-action status. But the Florida court did allow the up to 700,000 individuals who could have won judgments under the original verdict to use findings from the year-long jury trial to bring new cases against the cigarette makers.

Several tobacco companies, including Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds, had asked the US Supreme Court to overturn that portion of the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling. In doing so, the companies argued that they had already successfully challenged the damage award in the class action suit. The tobacco manufacturers also claimed that the jury findings in the earlier case were “vague and abstract”, and in preserving them, the Florida court had “abandoned a fundamental due process limitation.”

The tobacco companies also tried to argue that the federal law requiring warning labels on all cigarette packs superseded any liability claims filed in state court. The companies pointed to a 1992 Supreme Court decision that the warning labels disprove arguments that manufacturers failed to warn the public about the health effects of smoking.

The tobacco companies now face hundreds of lawsuits filed by smokers from the original Florida class action that will likely use the original jury’s findings to bolster their claims. Smokers and their families in that state have until January to file claims against tobacco companies, and one plaintiff’s attorney told the New York Times that tens of thousands of new lawsuits could be filed against the tobacco industry before that deadline.

In response to yesterday’s Supreme Court decision, Philip Morris issued a press release saying, “Philip Morris USA will offer a vigorous defense against any former Engle class member who elects to bring an individual suit against the company. The company expects to have additional appellate options if any of those individual cases are tried, including a renewed request for review by the nation’s highest court.”

About 700,000 plaintiffs were part of the original Engle class. However, lawyers involved in the lawsuit say that the majority of those people have succumbed to tobacco-related illnesses and only between 10,000 and 50,000 are still alive.

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