Tobacco verdict only $11K

A jury in Escambia County on Monday returned the lowest verdict so far in a string of suits on behalf of smokers against tobacco companies.

Betty Sulcer of Milton was awarded $11,250 on behalf of her late husband, Billy. A smoker since the age of 13, died of lung cancer at age 66 in 1993.

The jury found $225,000 in compensatory damages. But the award was reduced because it found Sulcer’s husband 95 percent liable for his health issues and Lorillard Tobacco Co. only 5 percent at fault.

The case is one of more than 100 filed in the 1st Judicial Circuit, which includes Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties. It’s the fifth in Escambia County to go to trial, according to the Escambia County Clerk of Courts Office.

The highest award thus far came in June 2009 when an Escambia County jury awarded a widow $28.3 million in a case that could go before the Florida Supreme Court.

The verdict on Monday came as a shock to Sulcer’s attorneys, Matthew Schultz and Robert Loehr of Pensacola’s Levin Papantonio law firm, who have tried three of the five cases in Escambia County, including the one with the $28.3 million verdict.

“I think that the defendant’s attorneys were as surprised as we were by the verdict,” Schultz said. “Each case is different and each jury is different and after three weeks of trial, the jury paid attention and reached this decision. We abide by that.”

Attempts to reach Lorillard’s attorneys Monday were unsuccessful.

In closing arguments, the plaintiffs asked for $4.5 million. Schultz speculated Monday that the jury itself reduced the award by 95 percent, not knowing that the award would be reduced another 95 percent to $11,250.

“I suspect the jury intended to award what we asked for,” Schultz said.

Schutlz said he is currently exploring post-trial and appeal options.

Circuit courts throughout the state were required to try the tobacco liability cases as a result of a Florida Supreme Court decision to overturn a $145 billion award in a 1994 class-action lawsuit known as the Engle case.

The higher court said smokers must prove on a case-by-case basis that cigarettes caused their respective illnesses.

The original class-action lawsuit filed by the family of deceased Miami Beach pediatrician Howard Engle said that tobacco companies actively sought to keep customers addicted to their products.

None of the cases in Escambia County has resulted in an agreed-upon settlement between the tobacco companies and the plaintiffs, and only a handful across the state have resulted in such an outcome, Schultz said.

“I think the bottom line as to why they don’t settle is because it wouldn’t look good in their stock portfolio,” he said.


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