Federal judges send 499 tobacco cases to Duval court’s new division

Over the objections of tobacco company lawyers, federal judges presiding over 3,800 pending tobacco lawsuits in Jacksonville have agreed to the voluntary dismissal of 499 cases that now will be tried in state court in Duval County’s new tobacco division.

Tobacco attorneys had called the proposed move “blatant forum-shopping,” but U.S. District Judges Timothy Corrigan and Marcia Morales Howard ruled that the ability to get to trial more quickly in state court weighed in favor of allowing the dismissals requested by lawyers for sick smokers. The judges said in a joint order that the tobacco companies failed to show how they would be prejudiced by trying the cases in state instead of federal court, especially since Florida law will be applied in either venue.

About 600 tobacco cases already are pending in state court. Circuit Judge Charles Arnold, who developed a reputation for efficiency in felony court, will head up the new division starting Jan. 3 to manage the tobacco caseload.

Corrigan and Howard also ruled that the dozen federal cases identified by lawyers for smokers and the tobacco companies will proceed toward a January 2012 trial date and that the lawyers should begin selecting the next 20 cases to try after that. They also asked the lawyers to identify cases that should be dismissed either because the case already has been tried in state court or the smoker has died with no heirs.

The judges said they will undertake their own analysis of ways to expedite the thousands of remaining cases by determining common issues that can be consolidated and litigated together while still protecting both sides’ rights.

The cases are the result of the Florida Supreme Court’s 2006 Engle ruling that broke up a class-action lawsuit after a jury awarded smokers $145 billion for specified illnesses resulting from their addiction. The court said sick smokers could bring individual damage claims based on the Engle jury’s findings.

source: jacksonville.com

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