Mt. Pleasant law firm at center of $100M tobacco deal

Joe Rice of Mount Pleasant-based Motley Rice was a chief negotiator in the $100 million settlement.

M A $100 million settlement has been reached between three major tobacco companies and hundreds of people who sued them for smoking-related deaths and illnesses in Florida federal court.

The tentative agreement, announced Wednesday and negotiated in part by a Mount Pleasant lawyer, involves R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Philip Morris USA and Lorillard Tobacco Co. The deal resolves about 400 cases pending before a federal judge in Jacksonville, Fla., but does not affect thousands of other lawsuits pending in Florida state courts.

“With respect to the cases pending in state court, we will continue to defend them vigorously, which includes appealing adverse verdicts,” said Jeff Raborn, vice president and assistant general counsel for Winston-Salem-based R.J. Reynolds.

The lawsuits stemmed from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision, known as Engle v. Liggett Group, which threw out a $145 billion class-action verdict against cigarette-makers.

That decision let stand findings that the companies knowingly sold dangerous products and hid smoking hazards, meaning future juries could consider that as proven fact. But the ruling also required smokers and their families to pursue individual wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits based on cigarette use.

The settlement Wednesday, which requires final approval from a federal judge, would end the federal cases that would have taken years had they gone to trial. Whenever people are suffering, we always welcome serious, fair offers that may more quickly resolve their claims and help them move on with their lives as best they can,” said Joe Rice, co-founder of the Mount Pleasant-based Motley Rice law firm and a chief negotiator for the plaintiffs.

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Under the deal, R.J. Reynolds and Richmond, Va.-based Philip Morris would each pay $42.5 million and Lorillard, based in Greensboro, would contribute $15 million.

Each individual plaintiff who agrees to the settlement can share in the funds, but any that do not may negotiate further. The goal, Rice said, is for full participation. “We’ve committed to try to get 100 percent of the cases resolved, and if we don’t we’ll go back to the table,” he said.

The settlement does not affect those federal cases that have already been tried or are on appeal. It will use a model formula based on past trials and rulings to determine how much money each plaintiff could receive, subject to approval by U.S. District Judge William Young.

Still, the companies and plaintiff lawyers were optimistic the federal lawsuits are near an end. “We are pleased to have these federal Engle cases behind us,” said Ronald Milstein, Lorillard’s general counsel.