U.S. District Court judges levy sanctions against Florida attorneys

By David Hutton | Oct 27, 2017

A panel of U.S. district court judges have imposed $9.1 million in sanctions on a pair of Florida lawyers involved in Engel product liability cases waged by smokers against the U.S. tobacco industry and ultimately settled, deeming the moves a waste of judicial resources.

The panel included U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida Jacksonville Division Judges Marcia Morales Howard, Timothy J. Corrigan and Roy B. Dalton Jr.

Due to the scope of the case, the three judges managed the cases jointly and were joined by Judge William G. Young, sitting by designation from the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.

“While the judicial books are closed for the litigants in the Federal Engle actions, this matter cannot be concluded until The Wilner Firm PA and Farah & Farah PA and their principals, Norwood Wilner and Charlie Farah are held to account for the immense waste of judicial resources and contempt shown for the judicial process occasioned by maintaining over a thousand non-viable claims,” the panel wrote in its opinion.

The case stems from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision decertifying Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a class-action tobacco suit originally filed in 1994. In the case the court found individual cases could rely on certain jury findings in the original case, including findings that tobacco companies had conspired to hide the dangers of smoking from consumers.

In a 148-page opinion, the court detailed the numerous filings in connection with the cases.

Wilner and Farah filed about 3,700 Engle-progeny complaints in state and federal courts in Florida, all alleging personal injury, wrongful death and loss of consortium claims as a result of cigarette smoking.

However, numerous plaintiffs had never given Wilner and Farah permission to file complaints on their behalf and many had never even heard of the attorneys.

Among the more than 500 plaintiffs included in the complaints included one who had died 29 years before the firms had filed the complaint.

Other plaintiffs were not smokers or didn’t live in Florida. Some cases had already been settled and other plaintiffs did not respond to court questionnaires and could not be found.

The court made its opinion following a seven-month investigation by the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida’s special master.

The court added that it is cognizant of the hazards of using 20/20 hindsight when reviewing the actions of attorneys facing unprofessional conduct allegations.

"We are insulated from the hurly-burly of the practice of law, the press of client demands, the call of time sheets to log, and the occasional dictatorial demands of the court,” the court wrote. “So it is, with that caution in mind, that a full explanation of the factors that motivate us to impose sanctions upon Wilner and Farah against the unique backdrop of these ‘tobacco cases’ is warranted.”

In forming its opinion, the court further noted that it also had the benefit of a 2014 11th Circuit opinion that upheld the dismissal of more than 500 Engle personal injury complaints that Wilner and Farah had filed of dead people.

In its opinion, the 11th Circuit noted Wilner and Farah simply didn’t have the resources or time to perform due diligence for each complaint, which totaled more than 4,000 individuals.

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