Tobacco Lawsuits Deadline Looms; the Court System Worries How to Handle All Those Individual Cases

Article excerpt

Byline: PAUL PINKHAM

With 3,500 cases in Northeast Florida alone, smokers have until Friday to seek damages for tobacco-related illnesses under a deadline set by the Florida Supreme Court.

The next step will be figuring out how to docket all those cases without shutting down the court system.

"This is uncharted territory. This has never done before," said Jacksonville lawyer Eddie Farah, who has teamed with pioneering tobacco attorney Woody Wilner to represent most of the local plaintiffs.

The glut of new tobacco cases was set in motion by a 2006 state Supreme Court ruling in a class-action lawsuit that had resulted in a $145 billion award against the tobacco companies, the largest such verdict in U.S. history. Although the Supreme Court found the amount excessive and dismantled the class, it upheld some of the jury's findings and gave smokers who got sick from 1990 to 1996 or their families until Friday to file individual lawsuits for damages.

Estimates on the number of cases statewide range from 5,000 to 10,000, said Scott Schlesinger, a plaintiff's attorney in Fort Lauderdale.

Lawyers for the tobacco companies didn't return phone calls Wednesday but have denied in court documents that their cigarettes caused the alleged injuries and argued the lawsuits are legally improper. Companies named in the lawsuits are R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, The American Tobacco Co., Philip Morris and Lorillard. They have put up a $700 million appeal bond that attorneys said would be available to the claimants in the upcoming cases.

In Jacksonville, about 660 cases are filed in federal court; the rest are in state court. Wilner said many of the plaintiffs are people he represented after he received national acclaim in 1996 for winning $750,000 in damages for an Orange Park smoker - the first time a tobacco company had ever been required to pay damages for smoking-related illnesses. …