Miami Attorneys Argue They Should Continue Representing Flight Attendants In Tobacco Case
Arguing under the threat of disciplinary action, attorneys from two Miami law firms asked the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday to allow them to continue representing flight attendants seeking court review of a $300 million settlement in a secondhand-smoke exposure case.
Some attendants and the Flight Attendant Medical Research Institute — a nonprofit organization funded under the 1997 settlement between tobacco companies and flight attendants suffering smoke-related illnesses — asked the court to quash the Third District Court of Appeal decision allowing the attorneys to stay in the case.
Chief Justice Ricky Polston indicated during arguments that attorneys Philip Gerson of Gerson & Schwartz and Steven Hunter of Hunter Williams & Lynch may face discipline if the court rules for their disqualification, which was ordered by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jerald Bagley.
In rejecting his decision, the Third District decided the Florida Rules of Professional Conduct were inadequate for resolving conflicts of interest in class action cases.
Chief Justice Ricky Polston indicated during arguments that Gerson and Hunter may face disciplinary action by The Florida Bar if the court rules against them.
Polston said he allowed the arguments to run long "because I felt this was perhaps a serious Bar disciplinary issue."
On rebuttal, FAMRI attorney John S. Mills, a partner at the Mills Firm in Tallahassee, said the opposing attorneys lied repeatedly during argument and in their briefs.
"Do we need an evidentiary hearing?" Polston asked Mills. "Do we need Bar counsel here to determine who is telling the truth?"
Mills suggested that's an issue for another time and returned to the issue of whether FAMRI acted properly.
The basis of the dispute is whether FAMRI has any obligation under the settlement to provide medical treatment to as many as 60,000 members of the class named for retired attendant Norman Broin, the lead plaintiff. Mills contended the nonprofit was obligated only to conduct scientific research that could benefit the class.