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Florida Politics

Takeaways from Tallahassee — When lawyers break bad

October 21, 2017, 6:00 am

A panel of U.S. district judges this week hit two Jacksonville law firms with $9.1 million in sanctions for filing “non-viable” tobacco lawsuits.

“On the rare occasion when attorneys undermine that integrity and trust, there must be consequences,” their 148-page opinion begins. “This is one of those rare occasions.”

It singled out The Wilner Firm and Farah & Farah, though the judges noted that though the firms “are responsible for the monetary sanctions, it is primarily the conduct of (principals Norwood) Wilner and (Charlie) Farah, and not the other lawyers in the respective firms, that has caused the Court to impose sanctions.”

The opinion went on to call over 1,000 suits they brought an “immense waste of judicial resources (that showed) contempt for the judicial process.”

Eddie and Chuck Farah

   Eddie and Chuck Farah of the Farah & Farah Law Firm in Jacksonville.

“Counsel evinced a conscious disregard of their professional obligation to properly investigate such claims,” it said. “As it turns out, many of the plaintiffs never authorized Wilner and Farah to file a suit. Some had barely heard of them.”

Such suits are known as “Engle progeny” cases, after a monumental 1994 class action and landmark Florida Supreme Court decision, in which individual smokers with claims against tobacco companies each sue for their own damages but don’t have to prove causation.

“Although a settlement of the cases in federal court was announced, the state court (lawsuits) are slated to go on for decades,” according to the Tobacco Control Legal Consortium.

On a related note, a bill died last Legislative Session that would have repealed the state’s cap on the amount of money tobacco companies have to put up as appellate bonds.

The state’s trial lawyers, who backed the change, said it would have forced settlements and end litigation over plaintiffs’ claims of irreversible illness or early death from smoking. The repeal has again been filed for the next session beginning in January.

William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, a tort reform group in Tallahassee, said the lawyers “clogged” the courts with “baseless lawsuits.”

“As (the judges) said in their decision, ‘frivolous litigation diverts the time and attention of [the courts] away from meritorious lawsuits,’ ” Large said in a statement. “This irresponsible behavior by plaintiffs lawyers has a cost, delaying justice for the truly injured who they profess to represent.”