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More than 11,000 Marlboro Lights smokers have applied for a share of a $45 million fund established to settle a Pulaski County lawsuit against cigarette-maker Phillip Morris.

But how much of the settlement will be awarded to the smokers has yet to be decided.

Little Rock attorney Tom Thrash announced the rough count of applicants on Monday at an eight-minute appearance before Circuit Judge Tim Fox.

Fox told the lawyers that he was satisfied they had met the legal standard for reaching a sufficient number of eligible applicants.

"I'm seeing a really good response to the claims offer," he said.

The hearing was a milestone in which the judge gave final approval for Thrash's pay-out plan and dismissed the 16-year-old lawsuit. But it will be some time before payments can be tallied and sent out, the judge said.

"There is a lot of work yet to be done," Fox said.

The next step is for attorney Allison Allred and accountant Angie Hopkins, who have been appointed to vet the applications, to report on their progress to the judge in January. They have to cull the submissions of fraudulent claims and inadequate applications.

Anyone who who bought Lights or Marlboro Ultra-Lights in Arkansas between November 1971 and April 18, 2003, is eligible to claim a portion of the money, regardless of whether they ever lived in the state. The Lights brand was introduced in 1971. The effective date for the litigation commencement is in April 2003.

With a Dec. 1 deadline on applications for a share of the money, claims can be submitted for about a week and a half. Applications can be submitted through a web site, Applications are also available through a toll-free number available around the clock, (877) 625-9432.

Purchase receipts are not required. Consumers can receive 10 cents to 25 cents every pack they bought over that 32-year period by submitting a sworn statement to the court listing the applicant's average daily cigarette purchase per year for personal use, along with the name, address and telephone number of a verifying witness.

As of Friday, the website has had 45,750 visitors with 194,602 page views, and 2,315 calls, representing 9,347 minutes -- about 6 1/2 days worth -- have been made to the toll-free number, with operators handling 547 calls that together lasted 3,152 minutes, a little more than two days, according to reports submitted to the judge.

Fox gave tentative approval to the arrangement in September during a month-long advertising campaign to reach eligible applicants.

To meet legal standards, the target audience was 90 percent of Arkansas residents over the age of 25 and 86 percent of residents 55 and over.

The settlement was advertised in 23 newspapers in Arkansas and two newspapers in Texas and Tennessee, with a combined circulation of 458,233. Ads were also placed in the four top-circulated Hispanic newspapers that together reach 49,355 readers.

Radio commercials were aired for a two-week period in 10 cities that reach Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas. Notice also ran in the national edition of People magazine, the highest circulation consumer magazine in the country, court filings show.

On Monday, the judge said the advertising campaign devised by Hilsoft appears to have worked so well that Fox recommended other lawyers with class-action lawsuits study it. The judge also predicted the program would be the subject of a law review article.

Monday's hearing was also significant because the deadline for challenging the legality of the payment-distribution process passed on Nov. 1 with no objections. Thrash also told the judge that only one person has opted out of participating, although there might be two more who decline to participate. He said the two said they were going to decline but one has submitted an application while the second has not been able to be reached to confirm his decision.

The hold-out, 64-year-old Mary Anderson of North Little Rock, reported she smoked the brand from 1973 to 2009. She wrote a letter declining the opportunity for compensation in October.

"I just don't want any involvement in it and I don't intend to file any private [lawsuit]," she said Monday.

In some lawsuits, opt-outs could choose to pursue their own litigation but the statute of limitations for making a claim against the tobacco company under the state Deceptive Trade Practices Act has expired.

The lawsuit accused Phillip Morris of deceiving Arkansas customers by advertising the light cigarettes, with specially designed filters, as healthier than their traditional counterparts.

Stating it had done nothing to deceive its customers, Phillip Morris paid the $45 million to settle the litigation, but it has the option of canceling the arrangement if an undisclosed percentage of eligible applicants decline in writing to participate.

Arkansas is the only state where the tobacco maker, a subsidiary of Virginia-based Altria Group, has settled a lawsuit over how it advertised its light cigarettes.

Federal regulators in 2010 barred cigarette companies from using the light description. The brands are now sold as Marlboro Gold and Marlboro Silver.

The settlement was reached about a month before the suit was scheduled for trial through a two-day mediation session required by the judge.

Arkansas was the last of the litigation. Thrash reported that the settlement is the only time any smokers have received any compensation for the money they had spent on the cigarettes out of the 19 lawsuits that have been filed against the tobacco company nationwide.

The suit had originally sought a full refund for each pack purchased during the 32-year span based on the argument that consumers purchased the brands because they believe the Marlboro cigarettes were healthier for them.

The only other state where similar litigation has been successful was in Massachusetts which produced a $25 payment, the least allowed by law, for each member of the plaintiff class for a total of $4.9 million, according to a sworn statement submitted to the court by Dr. Robert Proctor, a Stanford University medical school professor. Interest, however, added $10.2 million to that amount.

The 197,000 plaintiffs had been seeking $600 million.

That lawsuit ran for 17 years, with claimants coming from six other states, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont. Eligible applicants had to have purchased Marlboro Lights regularly in Massachusetts between Nov. 25, 1994 and Nov. 25, 1998.

Arkansas consumers will be paid 10 cents per pack bought over 27 years from Nov. 1, 1971, to April 17, 1998, and the five years between April 19, 1993, and April 17, 1998. The rate increases to 25 cents per pack for cigarettes bought over a five-year period between April 18, 1998, and April 18, 2003, a time frame that reflects the five-year statute of limitations of the deceptive trade law. If the $45 million is not sufficient to pay the claimants at those rate, the payments will be allocated proportionally.

The $45 million has to pay for everything, including attorneys fees and costs of the litigation, the expenses of administering the payout program and an award to the two lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Wayne Miner and James Easley.

The amount of attorneys fees will be decided by the judge at a hearing yet to be scheduled, although it could be determined at the January hearing. Fox will receive a recommendation on how much those legal fees should be from attorney James Tilley, who mediated the settlement.

A Section on 11/22/2016

Print Headline: 11,000 apply for share of $45M tobacco suit; At hearing, judge gives final OK


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