Court looks at tobacco appeal

A group of Florida smokers asked a federal appeals court Tuesday not to force each of them to prove that smoking causes illness in the thousands of individual lawsuits moving through federal court.

Such a ruling by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals would mean that the more than 4,000 plaintiffs wouldn’t need extensive — and costly — expert testimony to prove to each jury that their nicotine addiction caused lung cancer and other diseases.

Tobacco companies, meanwhile, asked the three-judge panel to conclude that the trials don’t begin with an assumption that the industry acted with negligence and that their products were defective. Attorney Andrew Frey said that each plaintiff should be required to prove that point in court.

“That’s the issue that’s really before you today — can the plaintiffs simply say negligence is established?” said Frey.

The appeals court ruling could play a key role in the fates of thousands of lawsuits spawned since the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 voided a $145 billion class-action jury award, which was by far the highest punitive damage awarded in U.S. history.

The Florida court’s ruling said each smoker’s case had to be decided on individual merits, but let stand the jury’s findings that tobacco companies knowingly sold dangerous products and hid risks from the public.

Both sides asked the federal appeals panel for a clear ruling on what attorneys will have to prove to juries and what will be treated as established fact.

“We’ve got over 4,000 cases pending in Florida,” said Frey. “It’s important to move these cases along and set the rules.”

U.S. Circuit Court Judge Ed Carnes said he was confident “we can straighten all this out.”

The panel’s ruling will be closely watched by tobacco companies and thousands of Florida smokers and survivors who refiled their cases in federal court.


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