Tobacco Trial Moves To Punitive Damages Phase

In little over four weeks, the next phase of Florida's class-action lawsuit against five tobacco companies begins. That's when the six-person jury will hear evidence to decide the extent of punitive damages to be awarded to the 500,000 Florida smokers the class-action lawsuit represents. There has been speculation that punitive damages against the Liggett Group Inc., Lorillard Tobacco Co., Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., Philip Morris Inc., and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. could approach $300 billion. But it's more likely that punitive damages will be set in the tens of billions instead because Florida state law prohibits punitive damages from putting a company out of business. Just last week the jury -- which began hearing the case more than 18 months ago -- awarded compensatory damages of $6.9 million to two of the three smokers named in the lawsuit and said that compensatory damages for a third smoker should be $5.8 million, but that his four-year statute of limitations had expired. The Florida verdict, which has been appealed, was the first class-action lawsuit against the tobacco industry to reach trial. Only six smokers have won individual lawsuits against tobacco companies; three of those verdicts were overturned at the appellate courts, and the others are on appeal.

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