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Cigarette makers face flood of lawsuits

United States tobacco companies have been hit with thousands of new lawsuits in Florida from smokers and their families seeking compensation before Friday’s court-imposed deadline for filing individual claims in what is shaping up as a major challenge for the industry.

The deadline was set after the Florida Supreme Court overturned a $145-billion punitive award in a class-action case against the cigarette makers but cleared the way for individuals to proceed with their own lawsuits against tobacco companies in state court.

”The Supreme Court found that cigarette manufacturers are negligent and that their products are defective, unreasonably dangerous, addictive and the cause of 16 separate diseases in human beings,” said Ed Sweda, lead attorney for the Tobacco Products Liability Project at North-Eastern University in Boston.

”This is a major serious problem for the tobacco companies to be facing here,” he said. ”We’re very much encouraged.”

When the state Supreme Court refused to reinstate the $145-billion award last year it was seen as a huge victory for the tobacco industry.

But smokers suing now could benefit from the high court’s approval of trial court decisions that smoking causes diseases and that cigarette companies sold defective products and concealed the truth about the dangers.

William Ohlemeyer, the executive in charge of smoking and health litigation at Philip Morris, the largest US cigarette maker, said there were now about 1 800 cases pending against the company in Florida, putting the state at forefront of the battle between smokers and the industry.

”About half of them are wrongful death cases, which is to say that the smoker is deceased,” Ohlemeyer told Reuters of the suits targeting Philip Morris.

”I’m sure they’re looking at a lot of money,” he said, when asked about potential damage claims.

The company now faces only 100 individual tobacco-related lawsuits in other parts of the country, said Ohlemeyer, who cautioned against underestimating the tobacco giant’s ability to defend itself.

”The company has been involved in this kind of litigation for 50 years and we generally are successful in reminding jurors that, you know, people who smoke make an informed choice about smoking. They’re well aware of the risks,” he said.

At RJ Reynolds, a spokesperson said the number two US cigarette maker had also been served with claims from about 1 800 plaintiffs.

Jacksonville, Florida, lawyer Norwood Wilner said the class-action case filed by Miami Beach paediatrician Howard Engle in 1994 was sure to expedite claims and benefit individual plaintiffs.

”A good deal of the case has already been done,” said Wilner. ”What the Supreme Court said was these are damage claims and that liability has basically been determined. All of the litigation about the cigarette companies and what they did has been done.”

Wilner, who has launched legal assaults against the tobacco industry in the past, said he expected to have nearly 4 000 new claims pending against tobacco companies by the close of business on Friday.

”We’re trying to get some compensation for these folks and some of them have been waiting for 15 years to have their day in court,” he said. – Reuters

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