Peltier column: Florida Supreme Court pushes tobacco case forward

— A long-standing battle between cigarette makers and smokers whose lives were cut short took a big step forward as the Florida Supreme Court told tobacco companies to get on with it.

The state’s highest court last week refused to jump into a debate over whether trial judges are using the proper procedure in thousands of smoking cases that have come about since it ruled in 2006 that plaintiffs’ battling tobacco companies could not file en masse but did not have to prove cigarettes were harmful and companies knew it.

In a remarkably short order, the court opened the flood gates for hundreds — if not thousands — of cases waiting in the wings that could cost cigarette makers billions of dollars in cases that may ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This cause having heretofore been submitted to the Court on jurisdictional briefs and portions of the record deemed necessary to reflect jurisdiction under Article V, Section 3(b), Florida Constitution, and the Court having determined that it should decline to accept jurisdiction, it is ordered that the petition for review is denied,” the court wrote in a two-paragraph ruling. “No motion for rehearing will be entertained by the Court.”

By refusing to take up an appeal by R.J. Reynolds over a $28.3 million award to a Panhandle widow whose husband, Benny Martin, was a lifetime Lucky Strikes smoker, the high court in essence told companies that it meant what is said in 2006. Smokers do not have to prove individually the inherent dangers of smoking. They only need to prove that it was largely responsible for the illness and death that followed years of use.

The Martin case is among hundreds of so-called “Engle progeny” cases brought about when the state Supreme Court in 2006 threw out the $145 billion awarded to a group of smokers who became ill or died in the mid-1990s. The court said smokers could not sue as a group but could rely on central findings in the class-action lawsuit.

Numerous individual cases followed against Phillip Morris (Marlboro), and R.J. Reynolds (Camel, Pall Mall). The ramifications of the decision go far beyond the Martin case.

A day later, the high court without comment accepted lower court rulings in three more cases, with verdicts totaling more than $25 million. Other cases are expected to follow.

The U.S. Supreme Court has already weighed in on one aspect of the cases, ruling that punitive damages cannot be overly excessive. That ruling has some observers saying the nation’s high court has little choice but to let the rulings stand, a non-decision cigarette makers say could bankrupt the industry.

Days after the Florida ruling, officials for RAI, R.J. Reynolds’s parent company, on Friday said performance for the first half of 2011 has been robust and the future remains bright for the company and the industry.

“Over the long-term our strategy is straightforward and bold. RAI and its operating companies are focused on leading transformation of the tobacco industry while continuing to deliver outstanding results for our shareholders,” said Daniel Delen, president and CEO of RAI, R.J. Reynolds parent company.

“We continue to drive innovation across our businesses with a commitment to redefining enjoyment for adult tobacco consumer.”

Email Michael Peltier at mpeltier1234@comcast.net.

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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