On Feb. 25, R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard and Philip Morris released an unusual trio of press releases: They were announcing a settlement with plaintiffs lawyers—to the tune of $100 million. For decades the tobacco giants have steadfastly refused to settle with individuals suing the industry over medical conditions allegedly caused by smoking, fearing that they would create a precedent. But this rare departure from standard practice came in a highly unusual matter: a piece of the so-called Engle litigation in Florida, a sprawling case that has followed an unusual course.
The settlement announced in February is the result of a lawsuit first filed in 1994 by Howard Engle, a Miami Beach pediatrician who suffered from emphysema and filed a lawsuit in Dade County circuit court against the major tobacco companies, alleging that cigarettes caused a litany of health problems. At the time it was filed, Engle was following a new wave of anti-tobacco sentiment. From the 1950s to the early 1990s, the tobacco companies did not pay a single dollar to smokers who sued over claims they’d been harmed by smoking. But in the 1990s, smokers began to gain ground against the companies. A number of state attorneys general began to pursue the tobacco companies. And in 1995, a federal trial court certified a nationwide class action estimated to include at least 30 million people, individual smokers suing tobacco companies for their health complications. That case, Castano v. American Tobacco Co., was seen as the great hope of plaintiffs lawyers to challenge Big Tobacco.
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