Business is Booming for Florida Big Tobacco Lawsuits

Laura Grossman, mother of two, died at age 36 of lung cancer.

Laura Grossman, mother of two, died at age 38 of lung cancer.

If you are an attorney in Florida, there is a good chance you are involved in litigation against “Big Tobacco.” Literally thousands of lawsuits related to smoking deaths are pending in the Sunshine State, and some of the plaintiffs are winning, at least on paper.

Last week, a Florida jury ordered R.J. Reynolds (Camel, Pall Mall, Winston, Salem, Kool) to pay $37.5 million to the family of Laura Grossman, who died of lung cancer in 1995 at age 38.

Ms. Grossman began smoking Vantage cigarettes in 1972, at age 15, and smoked for 23 years until her death. The lawsuit was brought by her husband and two children, who are now in their 20s. The plaintiffs were represented by attorney Scott P. Schlesinger, who based their claim on legal theories of conspiracy, negligence and products liability.

Plaintiffs argued that R.J. Reynolds claimed in its advertising that Vantage did not have “anywhere near the tar or the nicotine” of other brands and was therefore less harmful. They also contended the R.J. Reynolds specifically targeted teenagers such as Ms. Grossman. They showed the jury a confidential 1973 memo titled, “Some Thoughts about New Brands of Cigarettes for the Youth Market.”

The jury awarded $15 million in compensatory damages and $22.5 million in punitive damages. R.J. Reynolds is expected to appeal the decision.

Ms. Grossman began smoking Vantage cigarettes at age 15.

Ms. Grossman began smoking Vantage cigarettes at age 15.

Why So Many Tobacco Lawsuits in Florida?

The Grossman case was originally part of a class action lawsuit, Engle v. Tobacco, which was brought in the 1990s on behalf of 700,000 Florida smokers and their families. The class won a staggering $145 billion award against the tobacco companies. However, in 2006, the Florida Supreme Court threw out the award and said the case could not proceed as a class action.

However, the Florida high court also ruled that the tobacco companies did knowingly sell dangerous products and that the industry was indeed liable for smoking-related injuries and deaths. The court ruled that members of the class could proceed with individual actions against the cigarette manufacturers, and that a plaintiff must only prove that the victim was addicted to nicotine and that the victim’s death or illness was caused by smoking.

That remarkable ruling opened the litigation floodgates in Florida and more than 8,000 lawsuits have been filed, most of which are still pending.

If you are interested in knowing more, the Jacksonville Business Journal provided an excellent review a few months ago of Florida tobacco litigation: “Thousands of tobacco lawsuits wait for a verdict in Florida.”