Lawsuit seeks $2 billion for injured smokers in class-action suit

ST. PAUL (AP) — Injured smokers should receive at least a third of the state’s $6.1 billion tobacco settlement, say attorneys who have filed a potential class-action lawsuit on their behalf.
“We don’t start a lawsuit unless we think the chances are good,” Ron Meshbesher, one of the lawyers, said Monday.
The lawsuit was filed Friday in Hennepin County District Court on behalf of an estimated 70,000 people. The matter is considered a “proposed class action” until the court validates the class members and the action.
Two smokers were named in the lawsuit. If the class is certified, the remainder could choose whether to participate.
The smokers were “the injured parties and are entitled to recover the difference between the amount of the tobacco settlement and the amount of monies expended by the state, under the medical assistance and general assistance programs, to treat smoking-related illnesses,” according to the attorneys.
Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III, who settled the state’s lawsuit, expected the proposed class action to be dismissed quickly.
“I don’t think there’s any foundation,” Humphrey said. The state’s case was based on antitrust and consumer fraud laws so the money belongs to the state, he said.
Even if the lawsuit doesn’t greatly reduce the state’s share of the settlement, it could delay plans to spend it by tying it up in the courts. Already, gubernatorial candidates have lined up with ideas on how to spend it from buying prescription drugs for senior citizens to a comprehensive anti-smoking campaign.
During the four-month trial, the state sought $1.77 billion in damages for treating smoking-related illnesses. The proposed class-action lawsuit asks for not less than a third of the state’s net recovery.
Those the lawsuit seeks to represent were on medical or general assistance from 1978 through 1996.
“You see roadkill on the road and all the sudden the vultures are around,” Humphrey said of the new lawsuit.
Meshbesher, a Minneapolis attorney, called that remark “unseemly for an officer of the court.”
“We use the litigation process the same way that Humphrey uses the process. He’s taken this money off the backs of our potential clients and they’re entitled to get it back.”
Rob Shelquist, another attorney participating in the class action, said he thought the case could be resolved within a year.
The state settled its lawsuit against tobacco companies in early May. The consumer fraud lawsuit sought to recover the health care costs of treating sick smokers.
Humphrey filed the state’s tobacco lawsuit on behalf of the state nearly four years ago.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, which also sued the tobacco industry, received $469 million in the settlement. Today’s lawsuit does not seek to recover from their money.