Post: Fla. Court Upholds $24 M Verdict Against Big Tobacco
Posted by Sharon on 3/19/10
Fla. Court Upholds $24 Million Verdict Against Tobacco
A 9-year-old products liability case produced a major
victory over tobacco companies Wednesday when the 3rd
District Court of Appeal upheld a $24.8 million award to a
man who died of cancer shortly after trial.
The appellate panel offered no legal reasoning in its
unsigned one-paragraph decision in John Lukacs' case
against cigarette makers Philip Morris USA, Brown &
Williamson and Liggett Group.
The unanimous opinion by Judges Richard Suarez, Angel
Cortiņas and Vance Salter is the first appellate ruling
upholding a verdict since the Florida Supreme Court
dismantled a smoker class action and opened the door to
The case was filed on behalf of eminent domain lawyer John
Lukacs, who was covered by the so-called Engle class action
that pitted Florida smokers against the nation's five
largest cigarette companies. The state's high court ejected
a Miami jury's landmark $145 billion award and dismantled
the class in 2006.
With Lukacs dying, his attorneys sued and pushed for a
quick trial in 2002 instead of forcing their cancer-ridden
client to wait for the Supreme Court ruling.
"He wanted his day in court, and the only way to obtain his
day in court was to try the case before the Florida Supreme
Court made its decision," said Alters Boldt Brown Rash
special counsel Bruce Rogow, who argued the appeal for
The jury awarded Lukacs' widow, Yolanda, a total of $37.5
million in 2002. The award was later reduced to $24.8
Tobacco attorneys appealed, challenging trial decisions and
insisting smoker trials could not proceed without a Supreme
The 3rd DCA decision cited the Supreme Court ruling, which
allowed smokers to pursue individual lawsuits and offer the
original jury's findings as fact. New juries are advised to
accept that smoking causes cancer and other illnesses,
cigarettes are addictive and tobacco companies defrauded
consumers by misleading them.
"It sends a clear message that Engle is the guiding light
in Florida tobacco litigation," Rogow said.
Several plaintiff attorneys echoed his sentiments,
declaring the decision a landmark that will embolden those
fighting tobacco companies.
Miami attorney Stuart Ratzan, whose firm Ratzan Rubio is
involved in more than 100 smoker cases statewide, called
it "one more in what's been a series of victories."
"They're in big trouble," he said. "This is a quick
pronouncement by an appellate court. When the victories
continue to come one after the next in every layer of our
justice system, the end is near."
Carlton Fields attorney Gary L. Sasso, who represented the
tobacco companies on appeal, could not be reached for
comment by deadline. Another tobacco appellate attorney,
New York lawyer Leonard A. Feiwus of Kasowitz Benson Torres
& Friedman, declined comment.
"The verdict in this case should be set aside because it is
contrary to Florida law and due process," said Murray
Garnick, Altria Client Services senior vice president and
associate general counsel, speaking for subsidiary Philip
Morris. "We are in the process of considering our options
for further review."
About 8,000 smoker lawsuits are pending in state courts.
Most were filed to meet a one-year deadline set in the
Supreme Court ruling.
What made Lukacs' case unique was its timing before the
high court offered guidance.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Amy Steele Donner, who presided
over Lukacs' trial, entered a final judgment only after the
class action litigation was denied review by the U.S.
Supreme Court. But in a bold move during trial, she ordered
the jury to accept damning notions against tobacco as fact.
"Judge Donner was kind of ahead of her time. She was ruling
ahead of the Supreme Court, but now we know everything she
did was done right," said Hunter Williams & Lynch attorney
Steve Hunter, one of several who represented Lukacs. He
said the decision is the first appellate ruling upholding a
smoker verdict since the Supreme Court ruling.
Ratzan said it "was as if Judge Donner had a crystal ball."
Because of Donner's approach, tobacco attorneys argued
Lukacs was not a member of the Engle class of smokers and
the court improperly allowed the jury to consider the
actions of tobacco companies as fraud.
Hunter said the extended wait for review "was highly
unusual" because tobacco attorneys "were successful in
dragging it out. Turns out we were right all along."
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