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Decision may cost tobacco companies

From Bloomberg News

washington -- Cigarette makers lost a U.S. Supreme Court bid to prevent smokers in potentially thousands of Florida lawsuits from taking advantage of jury findings against the industry.

The justices on Monday left intact the Florida Supreme Court’s conclusion that the 1999 jury verdict would apply to future lawsuits. The jury found that cigarette makers withheld information about smoking risks and put unreasonably dangerous products on the market.

Philip Morris and Reynolds American Inc.'s R.J. Reynolds Tobacco unit face dozens of Florida lawsuits that seek to use the verdict as a starting point. Smokers and their family members have until January to file additional suits.

“We’re expecting in the tens of thousands to be filed by the deadline,” said Ed Sweda, a senior attorney for the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston.

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The cigarette makers contended that the lower court ruling “promises to serve as a catalyst” for those lawsuits. “Plaintiffs’ lawyers have begun blanketing Florida with solicitations, telling prospective litigants that the scales are now tipped decidedly in their favor,” their appeal argued.

The appeal stems from a case that at one point threatened the tobacco industry with a $145-billion award of punitive damages. The Florida Supreme Court ruled that a state appeals court was correct to overturn the award and that the case couldn’t go forward as a class action on behalf of 700,000 people.

At the same time, the state court said many of the jury findings would apply to individual cases. At the U.S. Supreme Court, cigarette makers said those findings were so “generalized” that their use in future cases would violate the U.S. Constitution’s due process clause.


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