Once part of a huge class action lawsuit, plaintiffs are now waging fights one at a time.
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
A civil case that begins Thursday in a courtroom here not only brands Florida as a hotbed of tobacco litigation, but also marks the advance of a huge stream of lawsuits against America's largest cigarette manufacturers.
About 8,000 plaintiffs are lined up to sue Big Tobacco in the Florida court system, a conveyor belt of cases that is likely to clog the calendars of state and federal judges for months, if not years, to come.
This wave of lawsuits from smokers, or their estates, stems from a 2006 ruling in the Florida Supreme Court that broke up a class action suit of more than 700,000 plaintiffs and quashed a $145 billion award against the tobacco industry, the biggest penalty in US civil court history.
While closing one door, the justices opened another, giving all plaintiffs one year to file an individual claim for damages against cigarette-makers.
The first case to make it to a full trial gets under way Thursday, when the widow of Stuart Hess, a locksmith from Cooper City, Fla., attempts to hold industry leader Philip Morris liable for his death in 1997.
"Florida has become a hotbed of litigation against the tobacco industry, and while the cases are difficult to litigate, it's interesting because so many are coming to the fore," says Cliff Douglas, executive director of the University of Michigan Tobacco Research Network. "We are easily talking years before anything is concluded because every successful individual case is going to enter several years of appellate litigation."