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By JOHN FRANK and COLLEEN JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
Published January 10, 2008
Paul Gelep's father smoked cigarettes all his life. He died in October 1996 at age 68. Verdict: lung cancer.
"He started at 19," Gelep said. "He had a cup of coffee and a cigarette each morning. That's what they did in those days."
Like thousands of other victims of smoking, the Clearwater family sued the cigarette companies for wrongful death. More than 13 years after the first lawsuits were filed in Florida, most are still waiting for a resolution.
The saga, drawn out since 1994 with legal wrangling and appeals to the highest courts, enters a new phase Friday.
That's the deadline for individual claims of negligence against Big Tobacco, as set by the Florida Supreme Court.
In July 2006, the state's highest court scrapped the largest jury award in American history: $145-billion given to 700,000 Floridians in a class-action suit against tobacco companies. It decided each person had unique health issues that required individual trials. The court later set the deadline for Friday.
So far statewide, the major tobacco companies have been hit with hundreds of lawsuits, including a significant number from the Tampa Bay area.
It's difficult to gauge how many smoking victims are represented, but lawyersestimate it at 5,000 and rising. The decision, in the Engle vs. Liggett Group case, appears to have helped the tobacco companies. It's less exposure than the 700,000 class-action plaintiffs, though tobacco attorneys have long believed that number was inflated.
"The financial downside is quite dramatically reduced," said Michael Allen, a law professor at Stetson University College of Law.
The smokers who filed suit start with an advantage, though, because the Supreme Court's decision ratified some key points - namely, that cigarettes are addictive and cause many health problems and that tobacco companies concealed those dangers from the public.
The main case smokers still have to prove involves the medical issues: that they smoked and it caused them to get a disease. Then there's the issue of financial damages.
St. Petersburg attorney Howard Acosta, one of the leading advocates against the tobacco companies, thinks the payouts could still be significant.
"These cases really have punitive ramifications because of the fraud that was committed," said Acosta, who is representing 280 living or dead smokers. "It's not like people are making this up."
Tampa lawyer Barry Cohen said his firm will fight for "very, very high punitive damages." His firm reviewed hundreds of cases and filed 49.
Bill Ohlemeyer is the lead attorney for Philip Morris, one of the tobacco companies being sued. Citing the company's success in previous individual lawsuits across the nation, he's not alarmed by the number of folks filing suit in Florida. Tobacco attorneys say they will contest each case, putting a strain on the court system.
The legal maneuvering is likely to continue for months, if not years. Acosta and Gelep, one of his clients, say the passing of time helps the tobacco companies through attrition.
"They are just waiting for my mother to die so it goes away," said Gelep, a real estate attorney.
[Last modified January 9, 2008, 23:11:10]