Jacksonville attorneys hit with $9M in sanctions in tobacco case

The panel also referred the matter to The Florida Bar

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A panel of federal judges last week imposed $9.16 million in sanctions on two Jacksonville attorneys found to have brought over 1,000 baseless personal injury lawsuits against tobacco companies.

In the 148-page order, the judges said Charlie Farah and Norwood Wilner filed 1,250 complaints in 2008 involving people who never gave them permission to do so, non-smokers and over 500 dead people.

The order, signed by U.S. District Judges William Young, Timothy Corrigan, Marcia Howard and Roy Dalton, also called for an investigation by The Florida Bar into any violations of professional conduct.

The judges wrote that the court system relies on attorneys to “maintain the integrity of, and trust in, our judicial process,” adding “there must be consequences” when attorneys breach that trust and integrity.

Daniel Bean, a partner at the Holland & Knight firm who represents both attorneys, provided the following statement to News4JAX in response to the judge’s order:

“Our clients respectfully disagree with the Order and intend to continue to defend themselves as they have successfully advanced the legal rights of thousands of tobacco related victims. They have dedicated their professional careers to the representation of those in need and will continue to do so. Without lawyers willing to take on difficult cases against formidable opponents, more preventable injuries and deaths will occur. They will remain zealous advocates for their clients while respecting the role of the judiciary.”

The sanctions stem from the Engle class action lawsuit that originated in 1994, which pitted Florida smokers against several tobacco companies. The class was estimated to include 700,000 people.

The Florida Supreme Court decertified the class in 2006 in a decision that gave plaintiffs a year to file individual lawsuits, and prove they were part of the Engle class and that tobacco was the source of their injuries.

In the years that followed, Wilner was only able to reach a fraction of the thousands of potential clients he said contacted him previously in the hopes of suing tobacco makers, the order stated.

“Nevertheless, he decided to file suit on behalf of all his ‘clients,’ whether he was able to reestablish contact or not,” according to a 2014 opinion from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Glaring issues with many of those complaints became apparent in 2012 after the court contacted the named plaintiffs directly, despite resistance from Wilner and Farah, the order stated.

The court found the pair filed 588 personal injury complaints for dead plaintiffs and 572 cases where the plaintiff never responded to their questionnaire, as well as a range of other invalid cases.

The panel estimated the 1,250 frivolous lawsuits cost the court system nearly $7,000 a piece, or roughly $8.7 million. That combined with the $435,000 price tag of the sanctions investigation resulted in the $9.16 million total.

But, as the court order noted, the attorneys’ share of the Engle settlement would be an estimated $15,600,000, more than enough to cover the staggering sanction.