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A 9-year-old products liability case produced a major victory over tobacco companies Wednesday when the 3rd District Court of Appeal upheld a $24.8 million award to a man who died of cancer shortly after trial. The appellate panel offered no legal reasoning in its unsigned one-paragraph decision in John Lukacs’ case against cigarette makers Philip Morris USA, Brown & Williamson and Liggett Group. The unanimous opinion by Judges Richard Suarez, Angel Cortiñas and Vance Salter is the first appellate ruling upholding a verdict since the Florida Supreme Court dismantled a smoker class action and opened the door to individual trials. The case was filed on behalf of eminent domain lawyer John Lukacs, who was covered by the so-called Engle class action that pitted Florida smokers against the nation’s five largest cigarette companies. The state’s high court ejected a Miami jury’s landmark $145 billion award and dismantled the class in 2006. With Lukacs dying, his attorneys sued and pushed for a quick trial in 2002 instead of forcing their cancer-ridden client to wait for the Supreme Court ruling. “He wanted his day in court, and the only way to obtain his day in court was to try the case before the Florida Supreme Court made its decision,” said Alters Boldt Brown Rash special counsel Bruce Rogow, who argued the appeal for Lukacs’ family. The jury awarded Lukacs’ widow, Yolanda, a total of $37.5 million in 2002. The award was later reduced to $24.8 million. Tobacco attorneys appealed, challenging trial decisions and insisting smoker trials could not proceed without a Supreme Court directive. The 3rd DCA decision cited the Supreme Court ruling, which allowed smokers to pursue individual lawsuits and offer the original jury’s findings as fact. New juries are advised to accept that smoking causes cancer and other illnesses, cigarettes are addictive and tobacco companies defrauded consumers by misleading them. “It sends a clear message that Engle is the guiding light in Florida tobacco litigation,” Rogow said. Several plaintiff attorneys echoed his sentiments, declaring the decision a landmark that will embolden those fighting tobacco companies. Miami attorney Stuart Ratzan, whose firm Ratzan Rubio is involved in more than 100 smoker cases statewide, called it “one more in what’s been a series of victories.” “They’re in big trouble,” he said. “This is a quick pronouncement by an appellate court. When the victories continue to come one after the next in every layer of our justice system, the end is near.” Carlton Fields attorney Gary L. Sasso, who represented the tobacco companies on appeal, could not be reached for comment by deadline. Another tobacco appellate attorney, New York lawyer Leonard A. Feiwus of Kasowitz Benson Torres & Friedman, declined comment. “The verdict in this case should be set aside because it is contrary to Florida law and due process,” said Murray Garnick, Altria Client Services senior vice president and associate general counsel, speaking for subsidiary Philip Morris. “We are in the process of considering our options for further review.” About 8,000 smoker lawsuits are pending in state courts. Most were filed to meet a one-year deadline set in the Supreme Court ruling. What made Lukacs’ case unique was its timing before the high court offered guidance. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Amy Steele Donner, who presided over Lukacs’ trial, entered a final judgment only after the class action litigation was denied review by the U.S. Supreme Court. But in a bold move during trial, she ordered the jury to accept damning notions against tobacco as fact. “Judge Donner was kind of ahead of her time. She was ruling ahead of the Supreme Court, but now we know everything she did was done right,” said Hunter Williams & Lynch attorney Steve Hunter, one of several who represented Lukacs. He said the decision is the first appellate ruling upholding a smoker verdict since the Supreme Court ruling. Ratzan said it “was as if Judge Donner had a crystal ball.” Because of Donner’s approach, tobacco attorneys argued Lukacs was not a member of the Engle class of smokers and the court improperly allowed the jury to consider the actions of tobacco companies as fraud. Hunter said the extended wait for review “was highly unusual” because tobacco attorneys “were successful in dragging it out. Turns out we were right all along.”

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