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Scenes from the last great tobacco war being waged in a courtroom in Orlando 

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Unlike the narrow Carter case, the massive Engle v. Liggett trial lasted more than a year. At the end, among other findings, the jury reached these conclusions: Cigarette manufacturers knowingly placed a defective product on the market; the companies knowingly concealed the health effects and addictive nature of smoking from the public; the companies conspired to hide the health effects and addictive nature of cigarettes from their customers; and the companies acted negligently.

The Engle plaintiffs were aided by an incriminating flood of previously unseen documents and secret reports – the result of a 1998 master settlement between tobacco companies and attorneys general in 46 states. Along with repaying the states billions of dollars in smoking-related Medicaid costs, cigarette manufacturers had to make public millions of pages of internal files.

In their wake, the Engle jury dropped a bomb in punitive damages: $145 billion.

The ash hadn't hit the tray before the tobacco companies appealed. Seven years later, in 2006, the Florida Supreme Court struck down part of the ruling. The court declared that the class – estimated by Engle attorney Stanley Rosenblatt at roughly 100,000 people – was simply too disparate. The punitive damages went away.

But the jury's original findings about negligence and conspiracy stood. Anyone who could prove that they deserved to be part of the original class – those addicted to cigarettes – could use what the jury found in a suit of his or her own. They just had to file within the next year.

The result? More than 8,000 individual cases sprang up from the original Engle verdict, by the Florida Bar's 2012 estimate. Yes, the tobacco companies had staved off a crippling judgment. But now they would have to fight in courts all over the state – a massive undertaking involving multiple law firms and untold cost.

After winning Carter, Wilner was inundated with sick or dying smokers who believed they had a case. When the Engle appeals finally sorted out, he and his firm filed more than 2,000 cases, including 1,800 in federal court, which sat on the docket for years. While the system tried to sort out this crush of litigation, Wilner took on the first of two partner firms to help with the load: Lieff Cabraser, where Byrd works.

The rap against the plaintiff's attorneys is that they're ambulance chasers angling for big judgments. What no one realizes is the amount of risk a firm assumes when it takes on a tobacco case. Set aside Big Tobacco's bleed-them-dry strategy of perpetual appeals, which end only when either opposing counsel blinks or the plaintiff dies, no preference. A firm can spend millions before the first verdict is handed down, and losses have implications for both plaintiffs and lawyers.

"The firm's executive committee made the decision to prosecute smokers' cases – and not lightly," says Lieff Cabraser founding partner Elizabeth Cabraser. "The cigarette companies' strategy of attrition to make these cases as costly and painful as possible is well-documented, and the strategy persists. It has been devastatingly effective, and whether or when we will recoup our costs is unknown. However, we believe the people harmed deserve all of the justice and vindication our efforts can provide."

For Byrd's plaintiff, Kenny Kerrivan, every day is an ordeal. The 73-year-old doesn't shake your hand. He apologizes when he meets you, but the fear of almost any germ becoming fatal – getting stuck in all of the extra mucus that his severe COPD creates in his lungs – guards him against almost everything.

He lives in a trailer on a street in Lake Panasoffkee, about an hour northwest of Orlando. Kerrivan grew up in Brooklyn, the son of an ex-Merchant Marine and a stay-home mom. He raced stock cars ("jalopies," he calls them) at local tracks in New York as a hobby. He did various light construction jobs before he moved to Florida, where he became a tow-truck driver and then a dispatcher. By that point, though, his health had already begun an irreversible decline.

Today, the simplest of acts – taking a shower, walking – leaves him winded and wheezing. He requires almost constant oxygen, a nebulizer to get medicine directly into his lungs and the steroid prednisone.

"When I tried my first cigarette, I was 14," Kerrivan says. He smoked at the bus stop with a friend. "I was 16, 17 when I, you know, started smoking them every day. I wasn't a heavy smoker. I think a pack of cigarettes would last me three or four days."

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