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MIAMI -- A decade has passed since a group of sick and angry cigarette smokers banded together in an unprecedented legal fight against the tobacco industry. A two-year trial produced the biggest award ever delivered by an American jury -- $145 billion. Now, in the midst of an evolving legal climate on tobacco-related lawsuits, Florida's Supreme Court is ready to review a lower court ruling throwing out both the money and a decision allowing the state's smokers to sue as one, reported the Associated Press.
The two warring sides have been joined by an assortment of interested parties, including public health, public policy and business interests, for arguments set Wednesday.
Martin Feldman, a tobacco analyst with Merrill Lynch, considers the Miami case "one of the three most important challenges against the industry'' -- all with potential multibillion-dollar consequences. The others are the Justice Department's racketeering claim currently on trial in Washington and a Philip Morris appeal challenging a $10.1 billion verdict in a light cigarette class action in Illinois.
The 3rd District Court of Appeal in Miami attacked virtually every part of the Miami smokers' case last year, but another panel on the same court issued an order that guided the trial by shrinking the lawsuit from a national class action to a statewide case in 1996.
But attention has focused on three legal issues -- whether smokers could bind together as a class, the appeals court's elimination of punitive damages as an option based on the state's settlement of its Medicaid reimbursement claims in 1997, and the trial court order allowing the gigantic punitive damage award for all smokers when the compensatory claims of only three cancer patients were aired.
More than 50 federal and state courts across the nation have largely disbanded class-action attempts by smokers.
Large-scale personal-injury class actions covering breast implants and asbestos injuries survived because they ended in settlement -- a line drawn in the sand by the tobacco industry when it comes to smokers.
The punitive damage award is in question several ways. Tobacco companies insist they would be forced out of business trying to pay, and state law bars bankrupting verdicts. They also argue punitive damages must bear some relationship to compensatory damages and cannot be decided for the group until everyone's compensatory claims are addressed.
The case is named for Dr. Howard Engle, an 85-year-old Miami Beach pediatrician with emphysema who underwent recent cancer chemotherapy.
Alvin Davis, one of tobacco's appellate attorneys, sees no way the class or the punitive damage award can survive even though thousands of smokers hoped the case would serve as a national vehicle for change.
Engle has a different view. "At the age of 85 I'm looking at the last chapter in my book,'' he said. "Everybody told us that this was a complete exercise in total futility, and surprisingly we have achieved some reasonable recognition."