Thursday, November 13, 2008
7 News Investigations: Up in Smoke
When you stop and think about it. It's amazing. A lawsuit that has taken 14 years to finish. Fourteen years ago, a South Florida doctor sued the tobacco companies. Now checks totaling hundreds of millions are being handed out to thousands of Floridians who lost their health or loved ones to smoking. As Patrick Fraser reports in this historic case, the money is nice, but it won't replace lives that went Up in Smoke.
WSVN -- Little did a Miami Beach doctor know that when he sued the tobacco companies in 1994, he would help make history.
Stanley Rosenblatt: "Dr. Howard Engle please stand. Dr. Engle has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema."
Now, 14 years later, the money from that class action lawsuit is being given out to Floridians who lost their health or lost family members to smoking.
Miles McGrane: "It was approximately $800 million, give or take."
Eight hundred million dollars handed out to thousands of Floridians and their attorneys. The final deadline to prove that cigarettes devastated you or a family member is next Monday. It's the final chance to tap into that multimillion dollar fund to get money from the cigarette companies.
Jim Attias: "I was able to pay my mortgage for that month. I was able to buy medicines for myself."
Like everyone else, Jim Attias just got a check for $9,000. He started smoking when he was 13 years old.
Jim Attias: "It's destroyed my life."
Cancer killed Bill O'Neal.
Chuck O'Neal: "He was just riddled throughout."
His family is waiting for their $9,000 check.
Connie O'Neal: "Oh, I think it would mean a lot to my mom. It would mean the world to my mom."
The attorneys in the historic lawsuit were Stanley and Susan Rosenblatt, a husband and wife who battled the tobacco industry by themselves for 14 years.
Miles McGrane: "They literally put their entire careers on the line."
Miles McGrane is the trustee who ultimately decides who gets money. As a lawyer, he is amazed at what the Rosenblatts accomplished for Floridians.
Miles McGrane: "Stanley and Susan Rosenblatt accomplished what no law firm, no group of lawyers, no other lawyers in the United States have done, or I expect will do, and that is they beat the tobacco industry. You don't beat this industry."
The Rosenblatts were rewarded for their accomplishment, getting $218 million. They don't want to talk about the case yet, but when he took on big tobacco he said money was not his motivation.
Stanley Rosenblatt: "This was never only about money. This was about showing these companies up for what they really are."
When the Rosenblatts got their money, the people in the courtroom hugged them, but some people were not happy.
Jim Attias: "They deserved something, but I don't think they deserved $218 million. I think that should have been split."
And even though 61,000 Floridians say they are eligible for a check, so far only 24,000 have been able to prove the damage from tobacco.
Barbara Embree smokes even though cigarettes are blamed for killing her mother and father. She may not qualify for a check by Monday because she can't find her parents' old medical records.
Barbara Embree: "It's extremely frustrating because I understand the HIPAA laws and what they were made for, but now I have a paper, a court order, and they still won't give them to me."
If she fails to find the proof, she won't collect any money at all. Bad news for her, but McGrane says he has to drain the $800 million fund, so if there is money left over, he will send out a second check to people who have already received $9,000.
Miles McGrane: "I've held back $30 million for contingencies, so I feel confident that everyone is going to get a second check, although a lot smaller than $9,000. I've enjoyed this immensely. It's unlike anything I've done in my practice."
The money for Floridians who suffered from smoking will pay some bills, but all the money in the world won't erase what cigarettes did to Jim.
Jim Attias: "And they had to take my urinary bladder out. This is all due to smoking cigarettes, and they had to create a new bladder from my intestine."
All the money in the world won't bring back the O'Neals' father.
Connie O'Neal: "There is probably not enough money to compensate."
Chuck O'Neal: "For the loss of a loved one."
So many people smoked, many not knowing those puffs would send their lives Up in Smoke.
Monday is the deadline for turning in the proper paperwork. However, you must have registered by June 16 to be eligible.