Recent Broward Law Blog Features

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Mayor's Sister Cuts Down Big Tobacco

Our Broward Law Blog has been covering the unfolding of the Big Tobacco lawsuits, noting how Judge Jeffrey Streitfeld could be busy for the next 300 years as he is assigned to 3000 of them. But to the credit of the litigators involved, the cases are going forward. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Legal experts predict that many of these suits will now gain momentum in Florida after a Fort Lauderdale jury ordered Philip Morris USA to pay $300 million to a former smoker who needs a lung transplant. To the surprise of many, the main plaintiff turned out to be the 61 year old sister, Cindy Naugle, of our own former Mayor of 18 years, Jim Naugle.

If it survives an appeal, the verdict would be the nation’s largest award of damages to an individual suing a tobacco. But Big T is not rushing out to cut a check. They will appeal, and as a general rule have absorbed product liability suits as little more than a cost of doing business since the seven biggest companies agreed to pay $206 billion in a master settlement agreement with 46 states in 1998.

From a legal standpoint, Florida, despite being one of those states, had a major legal ruling in 2006 which lowered a plaintiff’s burden of proof against a tobacco company. But it also created legal havoc.

The Florida Supreme Court rejected a singular class-action verdict and a $145 billion award to plaintiffs, saying smokers would have to sue individually for every case. So 9,000 cases have lined up across the state. That was the bad news.

On the other hand, the high court held that plaintiffs would not have to prove some key elements that had been upheld in the first stage of the class action: that nicotine is addictive, that smoking causes diseases, and that cigarette companies fraudulently hid those facts. Smokers in other states are still suing cigarette makers, he said, but they have higher legal hurdles. The Florida Supreme Court ruling is under appeal in federal court.

The real issue is the human one that gets lost in the legal process. You have a sensational verdict only because you have a very ill patient, one living with emphysema and needing a lung transplant she cannot afford. For the family it is about love and life. Will their sister and loved one survive the litigation and appeals? Will she get a chance to get the help and medicine she needs?

Big Tobacco’s lawyers have suggested that its industry could afford several hundred million dollars a year in legal losses if it had to. “That is a financially manageable issue,” he said. So to no one’s surprise, for them, it is not about Cindy Naugle’s life. It is about their pocketbook.

Welcome to corporate America.

Finally, here is something I did not know about. It seems there is a second round of class action cases evolving out of smokers’ claiming fraud and damages from past marketing of so-called light cigarettes.

Those products have been shown to be no less harmful than regular cigarettes because smokers inhale them more deeply. Congress, in landmark tobacco legislation earlier this year, prohibited the use of the terms “light,” “low” or “mild” in all cigarette labeling and marketing, effective June 22, 2010.

I owned a little newsstand on East Las Olas for a year. Nothing was more profitable then cigarettes, and nothing sold more than Marlboro Lights. I don’t know how they will market them next year, but I have always hated cigarette smoking, and never understood what is attractive or alluring about it. Except, if I believed the early ads, I would have been a great horseback rider, surfer, ladies man, and all around stud. But Big Tobacco never let up and kept on lying and lying in the face of so much scientific information to the contrary.

Cigarette ads made you think smoking was God’s way of uplifting you to success and being superhuman. The thing is so did Miss Cleo once try to tell all of us that if we only got her psychic advice our worlds would change too. And in the old black and white TV westerns, shown in the 1950’s there was always a snake oil salesman with a black hat and travelling carriage. That does not mean Cindy Naugle and millions of Americans were not defrauded. It is just that, well, buyer beware. Caveat Emptor.

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