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    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
    Jose Pagliery


    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
    individual trials.

    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
    Lukacs' family.

    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
    Court directive.

    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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