Attorneys at a South Carolina law firm have helped negotiate a $100 million aggregate settlement with three big tobacco companies on behalf of about 400 smokers who had cases pending in a federal district court in Florida.
The cases are among thousands of lawsuits against tobacco companies that have been filed in Florida since the Florida Supreme Court’s 2006 ruling in Engle v. Ligget Group Inc. That case de-certified a class action lawsuit against large tobacco manufacturers and required plaintiffs to file individual suits against the companies. Certain findings of fact from that case are applied to plaintiffs who qualify as members of the class, which consists of people diagnosed with tobacco-related health problems between 1990 and 1996.
Attorneys for the law firm of Motley Rice represented the plaintiffs, along with the national plaintiffs’ law firm Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein and The Wilner Firm of Jacksonville, Florida. Motley Rice, which has an extensive practice in tobacco litigation, has a South Carolina office in Mt. Pleasant. The firm’s co-founder, Joe Rice, served as the chief settlement negotiator.
The defendant tobacco companies in the settlement are Lorillard Tobacco Company, Philip Morris USA and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. The settlement does not include Engle cases that are still pending in Florida’s state courts. Rice said that there are approximately 3,500 such cases against the tobacco companies, of which his firm is involved in 500 to 600 of those.
Rice said that the plaintiffs had several challenges to contend with over the course of litigation that has now lasted for more than 15 years. One was that the plaintiffs had a mixed record at trial, winning perhaps only slightly more than half the cases that made it to trial. In addition, the tobacco companies had appealed every verdict, with some successes. To date, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had not upheld a single dollar verdict in favor of the plaintiffs.
The specter of time was another problem plaguing the plaintiffs, each of whom was diagnosed with tobacco-related health problems at least 19 years ago, and many of whom began smoking in the 1950s or 1960s. They are, by definition, an elderly population, and if a plaintiff passes away while his case is pending — oftentimes due to the very tobacco-related illnesses at the heart of the case — and isn’t survived by a spouse or a financial dependent, the cause of action vanishes.
“Many of these claimants passed away without ever having their day in court, and that was one of the major factors we were facing, that we were losing the chance to bring these cases to court because the plaintiffs were passing away. And that’s the thing that’s happening in the state courts today,” Rice said.
“So we’re very happy that this settlement will allows us to compensate people with certainty at a time that it can help them, versus the few people that might be successful at trial getting compensated at some time in the future.”
The most common injuries suffered by the plaintiffs included lung cancer, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and certain types of cardiac conditions. The Engle decision determined that qualifying plaintiffs had shown that tobacco use was a significant cause for each of these ailments.
As previously reported by Lawyers Weekly, on Jan. 21 a federal jury in Florida awarded Donna Brown, a 64-year-old Florida woman represented by Motley Rice, a $17.2 million jury verdict against Philip Morris for injuries she suffered as a result of smoking the company’s cigarettes.
Each post-Engle case is specific to the circumstances of the individual plaintiff, however, and the cases that went to trial produced a wide range of results. Rice said that he did not think that any particular verdict was a major factor in the tobacco companies’ decision to settle the remaining cases.
“I think it was the combination of the court giving us multiple trials, and verdicts being frequently in favor of the plaintiffs and the fact they were facing trial constantly, and losing some of them,” Rice said.
The value of each individual case will still need to be determined within the settlement framework that will be supervised by the federal court, a process that Rice said should take around 90 days.
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