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Florida Sues Over Tobacco-Related Costs : Health: Cigarette makers are blamed for $1.4 billion in Medicaid bills. Two other states have filed similar suits.

February 22, 1995|From Reuters

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida filed a $1.4-billion lawsuit against the tobacco industry Tuesday, seeking reimbursement for the smoking-related medical expenses of welfare recipients.

The law under which the suit was filed allows the state to seek triple damages, which could put the final figure near $4.5 billion if the suit is successful.

At a news conference, Dexter Douglass, general counsel for Gov. Lawton Chiles, castigated the tobacco industry for making enormous profits while ruining lives at great cost to taxpayers.

"All too often, our people hooked on tobacco products pay for their addiction with their lives and with their health," he said.

"The taxpayers in many instances pick up the tab for their treatment. At the same time, (tobacco companies) continue to return huge profits from the use of this destructive product."

The lawsuit, filed in state court in West Palm Beach, also seeks to prohibit tobacco advertising aimed at young people.

Florida is seeking $1.4 billion for estimated Medicaid costs due to tobacco-related illnesses over the last four years.

The state has an army of private-product liability attorneys ready to handle the case. The lawyers are working on a contingency basis that would provide them 25% of any final judgment. But they expect to face tough opposition.

Philip Morris Cos. and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. on Monday filed papers asking the Florida Supreme Court to prohibit the suit. They cited the Medicaid Third-Party Liability Act, which Florida passed last April.

The tobacco interests maintain that the law, which lets Florida combine all Medicaid costs and file them as a class action against the industry, is unconstitutional.

The law also lets Florida assess damages against cigarette manufacturers based on their share of the market in the state, regardless of which brands were used by Medicaid patients whose illnesses were attributed to tobacco.

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Minnesota and Mississippi have filed similar actions seeking to recover taxpayers' tobacco-related medical costs. Massachusetts has the legislation to do so.

A Mississippi court Tuesday issued an important ruling against the tobacco industry, finding that the state's landmark case seeking compensation for smoking-related Medicaid costs need not be heard by a jury.

State Chancery Judge William Meyers overturned a motion filed by attorneys for the defendants, which include major cigarette makers, who wanted the trial held in the state's circuit court system.

Attorneys say the tobacco industry, which has never had to pay damages in a liability suit, tends to do well whenever its attorneys argue before juries.

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