Florida - tobacco cases clog dockets of courts..

The problem is how to manage 3,800 tobacco cases when each one will take a year to get to trial and another two to three weeks to try. By one Jacksonville lawyer’s estimate, the process will take 760 years. So Tuesday, December 7th tobacco company attorneys and lawyers for thousands of sick smokers met with the two federal judges overseeing the cases to discuss ways to move the process along.

“It’s a huge number of cases for us to be trying to deal with on top of our regular criminal and civil caseload,” said U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan. “We’re going to do the best we can. We understand these are important matters to the people involved. But our resources are limited.”

The cases are the result of a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision that broke up a state class-action lawsuit after a jury awarded smokers $145 billion for specified illnesses resulting from their addiction. The court gave sick smokers a year to file individual claims against tobacco companies. (Cigarette Makers Face Thousands of New Florida Lawsuits..)

Jacksonville attorney Woody Wilner filed nearly 4,000 claims in federal court. An appeals court ruled in July that federal trial judges must determine the meaning of the class-action jury’s findings before deciding whether there’s relevance in establishing individual smokers’ claims. (Florida - individual cases against big tobacco can move forward, can rely on Engle jury findings..)

At the Duval County Courthouse, where about 600 state claims are pending, Chief Circuit Judge Donald Moran has appointed a judge to oversee nothing but the tobacco docket. Circuit Judge Charles Arnold can call in other state judges to help with trials.

Corrigan and U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard asked the attorneys Tuesday for suggestions on expediting the claims, but answers were hard to come by. The only thing the two sides agreed on was to schedule 10 cases for trial to get the ball rolling. But they don’t agree on which 10 cases. An initial list has changed, Wilner said, because some of his clients have died without survivors.

Kenneth Reilly, attorney for Philip Morris USA, told the judges any proposal would have to take into account the tobacco companies’ right to defend themselves.

Wilner proposed bringing in a special master, but Reilly said the tobacco companies oppose that idea because special masters usually try to broker a global settlement, which isn’t an option for his clients. Wilner also has proposed dropping 499 of his federal claims and trying them in state court, he said. The tobacco companies accused him of shopping for the possibility of a more favorable outcome.

Reference: Jacksonville tobacco cases clog dockets of courts No easy way to process the 3,000 smokers’ suits against companies by Paul Pinkham (paul.pinkham@jacksonville.com), Jacksonville.com, 12/7/2010.

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