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Fla. smokers to split $600 million tobacco fund

/ Source: The Associated Press

Tens of thousands of ill Florida smokers and families of those who died are lining up for a share of a $600 million fund created by major tobacco companies as part of a 14-year-old lawsuit against cigarette manufacturers.

The Florida Supreme Court in 2006 threw out a massive $145 billion damage award in the case, but the tobacco companies had previously set up the fund to be paid out even if the appeal failed. Last week, a Miami judge ordered the money divided equally among all Florida smokers who became ill before Nov. 21, 1996.

"It applies to people across the state of Florida," said attorney Bob Kelley, who added Monday his firm will represent about 1,000 smokers or family members.

The total number of people who could qualify is estimated at between 10,000 and 50,000.

A notice dated Friday from Circuit Judge David C. Miller sets a registration deadline of June 16 for the Engle Trust Fund, named for Miami Beach pediatrician Howard Engle who led the original group that filed the lawsuit in 1994. Applications can be mailed or filed via the Internet and will be available later this week at http://www.engletrustfund.com.

People who seek damages must submit proof of illnesses such as cancer, emphysema and heart disease that are linked to cigarette smoking.

Some of the people involved in the case from the beginning are unhappy that Miller decided to distribute the money equally rather than focusing on the original class. Gregg Duyser, a 55-year-old Hollywood man suffering from emphysema and other ailments, said he was initially told he might get as much as $28 million.

Now, it'll be only a fraction of that.

"It just seems wrong. It's getting way off track," Duyser said. "It's not supposed to be opening up the floodgates."

The husband-and-wife attorneys who filed the original lawsuit, Stanley and Susan Rosenblatt, did not immediately return a telephone call Monday seeking comment. Miller also ordered last week that the Rosenblatts be paid $218 million out of the tobacco trust fund, which is estimated at more than $800 million.

When it tossed out the original damage award, the state Supreme Court upheld a jury's findings that the tobacco companies sold dangerous products and hid the dangers of smoking. The 2006 decision authorized individual smokers to sue the companies on that basis, and more than 7,000 cases were filed by a January deadline.

Tobacco company officials said they would vigorously defend themselves against the individual lawsuits. They also questioned whether people would be able to prove that misleading statements in cigarette advertising were a key factor in their decisions to smoke.

The defendant companies were Philip Morris USA (a subsidiary of Altria Group Inc.); R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. (a unit of Reynolds American Inc.); Brown & Williamson (now part of Reynolds American); Lorillard Tobacco (a Loews Corp. subsidiary); and the Liggett Group (part of Liggett Vector Brands Inc.)