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Tobacco industry re-ignites litigation fight with Florida's trial lawyers

C.R. Wilcox and familyThe powerful cigarette industry re-ignited Florida’s tobacco wars Wednesday with a one-sentence bill that would strip away the right of thousands of Florida victims from collecting millions in damages.

The proposal by Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, would retroactively apply a 1999 cap on punitive damages to “all civil actions in which judgment has not been entered.” It is aimed at snubbing 4,500 smokers and their families who have sued cigarette makers but are still awaiting trial over claims that the industry deceived them about the dangerous and addictive properties of cigarettes.

The industry has already lined up its troops, hiring 95 lobbyists including a who’s who of players close to Gov. Rick Scott and key Republican legislative leaders, and distributing $217,000 in campaign contributions in the last election cycle.

Opposing the bill are trial lawyers, who were top contributors to Democrat Charlie Crist’s failed gubernatorial campaign. They have staffed up for the fight and created a website to court public opinion calledNoBigTobaccoBailout.com.

The issue stems from the 1994 landmark class-action lawsuit known as the Engle case. It was brought by Miami lawyers Stanley and Susan Rosenblatt on behalf of Howard A. Engle, a Miami pediatrician. He had been addicted to cigarettes since college, when tobacco companies handed out free cigarettes to students.

The Engle case was the first smokers’ class action to come to trial in a U.S. court. A Miami-Dade jury, after hearing 157 witnesses in two years, decided that the industry had intentionally misled smokers about cigarettes’ dangers and awarded a record-breaking $145 billion in damages in 2000. Read more here.

Photo: Bob Wilcox, center, of the Miami Dade Police Department, with his father, Cleston Roy “Red” Wilcox at his graduation from the police academy. C.R. Wilcom died of lung cancer in 1994. His wife and Bob's mother, sued R.J. Reynolds tobacco in 2007 for intentionally misleading smokers about the health effects of cigarettes. After years of delays, the family won a $15.5 million judgment in September. She is now 91.