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U.S. top court leaves intact jury verdicts against big tobacco

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a series of appeals filed mainly by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co seeking to overturn Florida court rulings worth more than $70 million in favor of customers who sued over injuries associated with smoking.

By turning away the cases, the high court left intact the rulings against R.J. Reynolds, part of Reynolds American Inc, and one against Lorillard Inc. The individual verdicts vary in size from a few thousand dollars to more than $25 million. The high court had before Monday already turned away several similar tobacco company appeals from Florida.

The cases are among thousands that arose from a class action filed in 1994 against major tobacco companies. The class action group consisted of all Florida residents who said they or family members had been killed or injured as a result of tobacco-related medical conditions by 1996. In 2000, a jury awarded the plaintiffs $145 billion in damages.

The Florida Supreme Court in 2006 overturned the $145 billion award and ruled that plaintiffs had too many individual issues to proceed as a class. However, the court said that plaintiffs could bring individual lawsuits based on findings from earlier in the litigation that nicotine is addictive and that tobacco use can cause a variety of diseases, including cancer.

That ruling prompted thousands of individual lawsuits from smokers and their family members in Florida's state and federal courts against major tobacco companies.

In October 2013, Vector Group Ltd’s Liggett Group announced it would pay $110 million to settle the claims it faced in Florida.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Jessica Dye; Editing by Howard Goller and Tom Brown)

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