Ex-smoker drops Philip Morris lawsuit for $1,000

Cigarette maker Philip Morris USA’s bag of defenses against thousands of smoker lawsuits in Florida may include the fear of having to pay the company’s legal fees.

Yesterday, a former smoker in Florida dropped his lawsuit against the Henrico County-based tobacco company and took a $1,000 settlement instead.

The plaintiff, Jerome Cohen, accepted the settlement after only two days of trial in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

His attorney, Philip Gerson, said his client dropped the case mainly for health reasons, the Associated Press reported. Cohen has lung cancer.

Yet Altria Group Inc., the parent company of Philip Morris USA, said yesterday that Cohen settled to avoid having to pay the company’s legal fees if he lost at trial.

Two other Florida smokers recently had to pay the company $100,000 and $30,000, respectively, after losing at trial, Altria said yesterday in a statement that also warned other plaintiffs.

“Plaintiffs who bring such flawed cases need to consider the risk of having to pay the company’s legal fees and costs if they lose at trial,” said Murray Garnick, Altria’s senior vice president and associate general counsel. “The company is committed to trying to recover the fees and costs it incurs in defending these cases, as Florida law allows.”

Thousands of Florida smokers and their families are suing tobacco companies as part of a case known as Engle, formerly a class-action lawsuit until the Florida Supreme Court threw out a $145 billion judgment against Philip Morris and other companies in 2006.

However, plaintiffs in the case were allowed to pursue individual lawsuits. About 4,000 claims are pending.

Edward L. Sweda, senior attorney for the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University, said the settlement of one case is largely inconsequential to the others that are pending. “It has no impact on any of the other cases that have been filed in Florida,” Sweda said.

But it does underscore a legal tactic that Philip Morris and other companies can use to ward off at least some Florida lawsuits.

Florida law allows a defendant to offer a plaintiff a specified amount to resolve a case. If the plaintiff refuses the offer and wins a judgment of at least 25 percent less than the defendant’s original offer, the defendant may seek attorney fees and costs from the plaintiff.

The attorney fees “could be hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Carl Tobias, a professor of law at the University of Richmond.

“It is a very technical, procedural rule,” he said. “It could be a helpful device for [Philip Morris USA] in some cases. I think the company will probably use it in cases they perceive are weak.”

source: www2.timesdispatch.com

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