Florida Supreme Court Finds Cigarettes Kill - But Take a Number and Get in Line to Get Money
On Wednesday, the Florida State Supreme Court threw out the punitive damages award of $145 billion previously granted by a lower court to a class of approximately 700,000 Floridian plaintiffs suing cigarette companies for their medical injuries from smoking in Florida.
If you saw the newspaper articles or online commentaries you'd think that the decision is an overwhelming victory for tobacco companies.
The reality is that, although it is a victory for tobacco companies, it is not an absolute one.
The Florida State Supreme Court also found that:
1. Smoking cigarettes causes aortic aneurysm, bladder cancer, cerebrovascular disease, cervical cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, coronary heart disease, esophageal cancer, kidney cancer, laryngeal cancer, lung cancer (specifically, adenocarinoma, large cell carcinoma, small cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma), complications of pregnancy, oral cavity/tongue cancer, pancreatic cancer, peripheral vascular disease, pharyngeal cancer, and stomach cancer)
2. Nicotine in cigarettes is addictive.
3. The defendants placed cigarettes on the market that were defective and unreasonably dangerous.
4. The defendants concealed or omitted material information not otherwise.
known or available knowing that the material was false or misleading or failed to disclose a material fact concerning the health effects or addictive nature of smoking cigarettes or both.
5. All of the defendants agreed to misrepresent information relating to the health effects of cigarettes or the addictive nature of cigarettes with the intention that smokers and the public would rely on this information to their detriment.
6. The defendants agreed to conceal or omit information regarding the health effects of cigarettes or their addictive nature with the intention that smokers and the public would rely on this information to their detriment.
7. All of the defendants sold or supplied cigarettes that were defective.
8. All of the defendants were negligent.
Although some might say that this is all somewhat obvious, this was the first time a court found these facts during a class action lawsuit that went to trial.
This ruling means that every one of the approximately 700,000 original class action plaintiffs can re-file and sue as individuals with the support of the findings of the court which means they now must only prove that they actually individually suffered injuries (as opposed to having to prove that cigarettes can actually injure).
Put differently, the court did not determine that all 700,000 class member weren't actually entitled to compensatory or punitive damages. All that its decision means is that all those harmed are not entitled to bring their claims as one class action lawsuit.
Whether or not you agree with the decision, its practical result is that only those with the greatest access to legal assistance will be able to press their claims as individuals. Although these individual claims will also be taken (as was the class action suit) on a contingency fee basis, only three representative plaintiffs had been needed to litigate the case on behalf of the rest of the class without the active participation of the 699,997 others (this is the essence of the class action mechanism).
Notably, the court upheld the individual compensatory damages judgments of two of the three representative plaintiffs for 2.85 and 4.02 million.
Now, the process of each of the remaining 699,997 individuals having to seek out and secure lawyers (let alone good ones) while suffering from the debilitating effects of their tobacco induced medical condition, are challenging to say the least.
Moreover, the dissolution of the class action means that now every case for punitive damages must be individually addressed as a separate suit, further burdening the courts with duplicitous lawsuits that could have been handled efficiently by one court and one judge.
In summary, although not a complete defeat for those injured by addiction to cigarettes, the result will be that of the approximately 700,000 people with claims, only a small portion of them may find themselves in a position to file an individual lawsuit on their own behalf.
If you or your organization is interested in learning more about or working on these types of civil justice issues, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Senior Fellow in Civil Justice
Drum Major Institute for Public Policy