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U.S. Supreme Court decision victory for Florida plaintiffs

Florida plaintiffs who are suing cigarette manufacturers got some good news this month from the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court rejected the companies' appeal of the Florida Supreme Court's latest decision to allow individual Floridians to pursue cases based on a previous class-action suit decision.

This means that those suing the tobacco industry for causing emphysema, cancer and other medical conditions may pursue their actions against the companies, and survivors may continue with wrongful death suits. Approximately 2,500 of the original class-action plaintiffs still have pending individual cases. Reportedly, 110 cases have already been tried, with pending awards of about $500,000. According to one Florida attorney who represents approximately 350 litigants, the decision gives a strong green light to continue going forward without fear that the Supreme Court is going to step in and take away verdicts."

That attorney noted, however, that while "cigarette companies are dragging this out because people are dying every day…there are still plenty of cases." The cases date back to a class-action suit by about 8,000 people in the 1990s. A jury ruled that "Big Tobacco" conspired to hide evidence of tobacco's hazards. That decision was tossed out. However, Florida courts, including the Florida Supreme Court, have ruled that the plaintiffs in that suit can use the conspiracy finding in individual suits. They still, however, need to prove that that their addiction to smoking resulted in their illness or the death of a loved one.

The defendants appealed the Florida high court's last ruling, which involved some $70 million in claims, to the U.S. Supreme Court. They argued that their due process rights were violated.

One attorney for a health advocacy group says that attorneys for major tobacco companies including R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris may seek a settlement with the plaintiffs similar to the $110 million one reached by Liggett Group last year. He says, "it makes sense that sooner, rather than later, they will try to look for a grand settlement" that "would bring more predictability and stability to the industry."

Even when plaintiffs are not part of a class-action suit, there can still be strength in numbers. When a company can be linked to the injury or wrongful death of multiple victims, the sheer magnitude of plaintiffs can help them prevail in court.

Source: Tampa Bay Times, "U.S. Supreme Court sides against Big Tobacco in Florida litigation" Stephen Nohlgren, Jun. 09, 2014

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