Tobacco industry receives no relief Justices reject appeal against Florida, clear way for state's lawsuit

Supreme Court

March 18, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Handing the tobacco industry a second defeat within a week in court, the Supreme Court turned aside yesterday a constitutional challenge to a Florida law making it harder for cigarette makers to defend themselves against a still-rising flood of state governments' lawsuits.

Nearly two dozen states have sued the industry to recoup billions of dollars paid in medical benefit payments to individuals allegedly harmed by smoking. Maryland is one of the states suing.

The Supreme Court's action clears the way for trial in August of ......TC $400 million damages lawsuit that Florida has brought against cigarette companies.

Just last week, the industry suffered a judicial setback when the Mississippi Supreme Court allowed that state's lawsuit to go to trial in June. Mississippi is seeking $940 million in damages.

In yesterday's brief order by the Supreme Court, the justices refused without comment to hear an appeal by Philip Morris Inc. and a Florida business association seeking to test a highly controversial 1994 law that took away some of the most significant legal defenses the industry has long relied upon to defeat damages lawsuits. The law bars arguments that smokers bear personal responsibility for tobacco-related illnesses.

Last year, the tobacco industry persuaded the state legislature to repeal that law, but Gov. Lawton Chiles vetoed the repeal measure, and the industry could not muster the votes to override the veto.

The Florida Supreme Court rejected in June a constitutional challenge to the 1994 law, setting the stage for the unsuccessful appeal to the highest court.

Philip Morris said in a statement that the justices' refusal to hear the appeal said nothing about the constitutionality of the Florida law, and left open the possibility of a future challenge.

Anti-tobacco activists, however, said that the court order would increase pressure on state governments not to give in so easily to the industry.

Pub Date: 3/18/97

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