TALLAHASSEE -- The powerful cigarette industry reignited Florida’s tobacco wars Wednesday with a one-sentence bill that would strip away the right of thousands of Florida victims from collecting millions in damages.
The proposal by state Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, would retroactively apply a 1999 cap on punitive damages to “all civil actions in which judgment has not been entered.” It is aimed at snubbing 4,500 smokers and their families who have sued cigarette makers but are still awaiting trial over claims the industry deceived them about the dangerous and addictive properties of cigarettes.
The industry has already lined up its troops, hiring 95 lobbyists including a who’s who of players close to Gov. Rick Scott and key Republican legislative leaders, and distributing $217,000 in campaign contributions in the last election cycle.
Opposing the bill are trial lawyers, who were top contributors to Democrat Charlie Crist’s failed gubernatorial campaign. They have staffed up for the fight and created a website to court public opinion called NoBigTobaccoBailout.com.
The issue stems from the 1994 landmark class-action lawsuit known as the Engle case. It was brought by Miami lawyers Stanley and Susan Rosenblatt on behalf of Howard A. Engle, a Miami pediatrician. He had been addicted to cigarettes since college, when tobacco companies handed out free cigarettes to students.
The Engle case was the first smokers class action to come to trial in a U.S. court. A Miami-Dade jury, after hearing 157 witnesses in two years, decided the industry had intentionally misled smokers about cigarette dangers and awarded a record-breaking $145 billion in damages in 2000.
The industry appealed and, in 2006, the Florida Supreme Court tossed out the award and ruled smokers must prove individually cigarettes caused their illness. The high court also decertified the class-action filed on behalf of approximately 700,000 smokers, but let stand the ruling tobacco manufacturers committed fraud by deceiving smokers about the addictive nature and harmful effects of cigarettes.
Of the 700,000 smokers identified in the Engle case, about 9,500 sued the industry by the 2007 deadline set by the court. Since then, courts have awarded $388 million to Floridians for punitive damages, which were intended to punish the industry for bad behavior, and $266 million in compensatory damages for lost wages.
Richter’s bill, Senate Bill 978, would put an end to all punitive damages not yet claimed by imposing the 1999 cap, which allows a company to be charged only once for punitive damages.
“Tobacco will pay their compensatory damages, but these lawsuits were filed eight or nine years after the punitive cap was in place,’’ he said.
For Bob Wilcox, 49, a Miami-Dade police lieutenant in the homicide bureau, the bill is an “outrageous” attempt to shield an industry that deserves to be punished for lying to people like his father, Cleston Roy “Red” Wilcox, who died of lung cancer at age 70. Wilcox’s 91-year-old mother won a $15.5 million judgment in September, but is expecting an appeal. She has been a widow since her husband’s death in 1994. The family first filed the lawsuit against RJ Reynolds Tobacco in 2007 and it took seven years to bring it to trial.
“I firmly believe they engaged in a practice of delay, delay, delay hoping my mother would die,’’ Wilcox told the Herald/Times. “I was lucky it was heard. How about all the other people who have passed away while their case has been delayed?”
“Today, there has been a societal change because of the lawsuits, but if this would have started in the early 1950s and, if they would not have lied, maybe my father would have had the ability to quit,’’ he said.
Richter noted the tobacco industry will continue to pay its debt to the state, in the form of the annual multimillion-dollar payments from the landmark tobacco settlement “they will be paying until they go out of business.”
It is an argument expected to be made by the companies who have lined up the dozens of lobbyists — RAI Services, (R.J. Reynolds Tobacco), Altria (Phillip Morris), Vector Tobacco (Liggett), Lorrillard Tobacco Company, the American Tort Reform Association, the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, the Florida Justice Reform Institute and Associated Industries of Florida.
Wilcox now has no sympathy for the arguments on behalf of the industry.
“Is it because they are losing these cases, they don’t want to have the punitive damages?,’’ he asked. “What does that say for the system? They are going to change the law to accommodate a business?”
Meanwhile, he hopes his family’s case will be resolved in time for his mother to benefit from it.
“Does my mother deserve a little bit more comfort at this stage in her life?” Wilcox asked. “She’s a blind 91-year-old who has been denied her partner over 20 years. She gave up a lot.’’