The Jewish couple who fought Big Tobacco

US husband-and-wife legal team Stanley and Susan Rosenblatt never doubted they could achieve the impossible.

Stanley and Susan Rosenblatt. They took on Big Tobacco in the courtroom and won. (photo credit: LAURA KELLY)
Stanley and Susan Rosenblatt. They took on Big Tobacco in the courtroom and won.
(photo credit: LAURA KELLY)
On July 14, 2000, after nearly a decade of legal proceedings – including two years of courtroom litigation – a Florida jury awarded the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against Big Tobacco a staggering $145 billion in punitive damages, the highest verdict in history.
While that figure was immediately appealed and would later be set aside, and while class members seeking compensation would be instructed to file separate lawsuits, the verdict was nonetheless a breakthrough in holding Big Tobacco accountable for diseases developed and health risks acquired through smoking. Additionally, the jury found that the companies had committed fraud and had conspired to hide evidence that their products were dangerous.
These findings paved the way for how the world views smoking today – whether it’s the smoking bans on air - planes and in public spaces, accountability in advertising, or the research and medical breakthroughs spawned or funded through litigation.
But outside a Florida courthouse on a hot summer day, with news cameras crowding the steps, co-class counsel Stanley Rosenblatt extended his hand to his wife, his partner in the case. Just after their victory, Susan Rosenblatt wore a relieved and triumphant smile – and in her hand she carried a book of Psalms.
The Orthodox Jewish couple’s ninth and youngest child was only two years old when they filed Engle vs R.J. Reynolds, et al. on May 9, 1994. They admit that their work and the trial took a toll on their family, in addition to being physically and emotionally draining.
“The only thing that kept our sanity was Shabbos ,” Stanley says. “Friday night, Saturday, we were with the family. If not for that, we would have been [working] seven days.”
They have been described as the “mom and pop” law firm em - broiled in a “David vs Goliath” case. Fifteen years later, in the con - ference room of The Jerusalem Post , it’s clear that for Stanley, it was as simple as the pursuit of truth and justice.
“I just felt, when you saw these guys – these CEOs from Philip Morris and Reynolds and the tobacco companies – still saying, ‘It doesn’t cause cancer, it hasn’t been proven,’ and this kind of thing, I just wanted to get them,” he says.
One can imagine him standing in the courtroom, speaking clearly, succinctly, the sole litigator for thousands of plaintiffs, pitted against a defense team of some of the most accomplished lawyers in the US.
In Jerusalem, he leans forward in his chair. “I wanted to look these guys in the eye and have them tell me, ‘It’s a coincidence.’” As for Susan, she found herself be - coming more religiously observant and spiritual over the years they were em - broiled in the trial.
“We were up against an industry with essentially unlimited resources that boasted of their ability to wear their opponents down, financially and physically,” she says. “Winning was a miracle.”
Where Stanley is gruff, Susan is sweet; he speaks in short, straight-to-the- point sentences, while she elaborates with background and carefully chosen words. In their give-and-take, one can imagine that where she excels, he defers – and where he shines, she supports.
“We’re overachievers,” she offers casually as a catch-all for the couple’s achievements, individually or together. These include paving the way for the filing of thousands of individual law - suits against Big Tobacco, as well as the setup and funding of numerous centers of research into cancer and smoking- related diseases. Stanley is also an author of four books and was the host of two PBS shows, Within the Law and Israel Diary . In the latter, he interviewed such Israeli stalwarts as Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin, Chaim Herzog and Abba Eban, among others.
‘It was a setup’
Susan grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and set out on her overachieving path early, graduating from high school at the age of 12. She went on to the University of Miami, where she earned her BA in economics, finishing at 17.
After university, she went to stay with her brother for a year in Califor - nia, where she alludes to having experienced a time of freedom and experimentation.
“I saw Janis Joplin,” she offers in summary.
She began work as a legal secretary and, in - trigued by the practice, set her sights on law school. She says her only hesitation came from her belief that she was too emotional to be a courtroom lawyer, but in the end, at the age of 21, she graduated cum laude from the University of Mi - ami Law School.
Stanley took a similar path, geograph - ically at least: He was born and raised in Brooklyn and then moved to Miami. He majored in political science as an undergrad at the University of Miami, graduating magnum cum laude, and also attended law school there.
Despite their similar trajectories, the two most likely would not have gotten together if it weren’t for an eager shad - chan (matchmaker).
Susan unexpectedly lost her father to an aortic aneurysm. She was a young lawyer at the time, and a colleague of hers came to the shiva to pay her respects. With the lawyer was the woman’s former sister-in-law, Joan, who happened to be visiting Miami from New York.
“I had never met Joan before,” Susan says. “After speaking for a few minutes, Joan, a lawyer in New York City, asked if I was married, and when I said I was single – with a boyfriend at the time who was there with me – she said I must meet Stanley Rosenblatt.”
If you, the reader, think this was inappropriate, Susan thought it even more so.
“I cut her off – this was a time to grieve for my father – but she followed up, calling me from New York and each time she visited Miami. Again and again, insisting we meet. And Stanley, I learned later, didn’t even know her – apparently they had a mutual friend. Finally, after a lot of calls and pressure, some nine months later, we both reluctantly agreed to meet.”
There was also another reason Susan was hesitant to go out with him: In an earlier case, she had represented a client against his client. While she had never met him, she recognized his name from trial documents on opposing counsel.
But the two finally met, and as Susan sums it up, “the rest is history.”
The trials
The Rosenblatts were first introduced to the tobacco industry through Peter Rosier. At the time, in the late ’80s, Stanley was focusing mostly on malpractice and personal injury. Rosier was a young pathologist who was on trial for first-degree murder for attempting to help his terminally ill wife, Patricia, end her own life. A 1988 report in The New York Times said Rosier had admitted on a television program that he had given morphine to his wife to help her kill herself. The morphine failed, however, and it was her stepfather who suffocated her with his hand.
But because of Rosier’s admission, the State of Florida brought him up on criminal charges, and he approached Stanley to represent him because he trusted him.
Earlier, Rosier had approached Stanley to file a malpractice suit against Patricia’s doctors for a delayed diagnosis. Though Stanley had passed on that case, the two had developed a friendship.
At this point, however, Rosier needed a criminal lawyer, and that wasn’t Stanley’s field. Still, the case intrigued him, and Rosier was his friend. So he and Susan set to studying criminal law and prepared for Rosier’s defense. They realized they couldn’t tell the State of Florida to ignore the fact that euthanasia is against the law, so instead they sought to prove that Rosier had been acting mercifully – that his terminally ill wife had been in such a state of pain and suffering that Rosier had been left with no choice.
A beautiful woman in her 40s, no one had expected Patricia Rosier to be suffering from lung cancer. Her doctors originally diagnosed her with bronchitis.
Why had she declined so quickly? “Smoking caused it,” Stanley says plainly.
To prove this, the couple began studying and meticulously examining how smoking affects the body. While in the process of switching law professions, Susan quips that they studied so much medicine, they could have earned a medical degree. The strategy worked and Rosier was acquitted on all charges.
It was only a few years ago, Susan says, that the two of them realized how deeply the Rosier case affected them and played on their subconsciouses when they accepted their first case against Big Tobacco.
Norma Broin was in her 30s, non-smoking but chronically exposed to secondhand smoke as a flight attendant.
During a routine chest X-ray, a nodule was discovered on her lungs.
“When we were contacted about getting involved in the secondhand smoke issue,” Stanley recalls, “it was very dramatic.”
Susan explains that at that time, no one had questioned the CEOs of these tobacco companies under oath in depositions, and Broin vs Philip Morris et al.
would be the first class-action ever filed against the tobacco industry. The lawsuit represented seven flight attendants on behalf of 60,000 others who had been forced to breathe in secondhand smoke on airplanes.
“We had no ‘dream team,’” Susan wrote to me in an email, “only ourselves.
Two workaholics with a cause.”
Whereas the flight attendants sought damages from exposure to tobacco smoke in airline cabins, the Rosenblatts wanted to continue to hold Big Tobacco accountable for misleading smokers about the harmful and addictive nature of their product.
“Engle was premised on the incredible addictiveness of nicotine,” Susan wrote to me. “Addiction being part of the class definition, undermining the (totally false) adage of the tobacco industry for decades, that anyone with a little willpower can quit smoking cold turkey.”
Their lead class representative for the case, Dr. Howard Engle, was seen as the archetypal tragic smoker. A pediatrician, he was fully aware of the dangers of smoking, but felt powerless to quit. He said he had tried to quit over 100 times; he would see patients and sneak out the back door to have a cigarette in the alley.
Similar to Rosier, this lawsuit also touched on a personal nerve. Dr. Engle was the couple’s pediatrician for eight of their nine children.
The Rosenblatts initially wanted to file a national class-action suit, but in the end resigned themselves to representing just residents of Florida – with a still-impressive 700,000 people on the case.
While Stanley prepped the witnesses and litigated in the courtroom, Susan compiled the research and arguments at the office. They worked like this constantly for months on end. Where Big Tobacco would bring – in Stanley’s words – a hotshot lawyer for two weeks to handle one witness, it was just Stan - ley and Susan handling 157 witnesses.
The two would sometimes meet their witnesses only the night before they were expected to take the stand.
“Just tell the truth, just tell your story,” Susan recalls saying during some of that crunch preparation.
When the work in the courtroom ended, the preparation for the next day began immediately at home. They were working around the clock.
“When lawyers would ask us, ‘You’ve been in trial eight, nine months, how do you do it?’ One day at a time, that’s the only way we survived,” Stanley says.
For the couple, already hard workers, the two-year Engle trial fully engrossed their lives. It was physically exhausting. Susan developed atrial fibrillation, a rapid and irregular heartbeat, and was prescribed medication for it. “That started because of the trial and the pres - sure, because you’re under constant pressure,” she says.
The lawyers had to rely on relatives to watch or entertain the children and missed out on many school activities. Susan admits that she did receive lectures from her children about how much they were working and how much they were missing out on, but having a big family was also a positive – the kids had each other.
The two bring up one particular in - stance in which they could see how the trial had a positive impact on the children and brought them together.
They were in the appeals process of Engle, in the Florida Supreme Court. While appeals are Susan’s specialty, the stress of arguing was too much for her to bear physically, and she prepped Stanley for the argument. But when a justice from the Supreme Court asked Stanley a technical question, “I had no idea what the hell the guy was talking about,” he says, “so I said, ‘I’m going to let my wife handle that.’” “Which is not a normal thing to say when you’re in front of the Supreme Court,” Susan adds.
At the time, four of the Rosenblatts’ children were in school in Israel, but they were watching the proceedings streamed online. Susan, despite her hesitation, stood up and began her argument, while across the ocean, her children cheered her on.
‘Just file a lawsuit, see where it goes’
Both Stanley and Susan hope that young lawyers are inspired to work in the public sector due to the successes of their own cases.
“So many law students are getting out of the big schools and want to work for Wall Street, and that’s a problem,” Stanley says. “Instead of going into the public sector and going against corporations that are abusing people, they are doing the opposite and they’re joining the corporations.”
While today corporations lobby Congress for legislation to protect them from verdicts like the Rosenblatts’ $145b., Susan says holding them accountable is “still doable.” She provides clear instructions: “Just file a lawsuit, see where it goes.”
Today, the Rosenblatts divide their time between Miami and Jerusalem, en - joying their nine children and 16 grand - children. Stanley serves as chairman, and Susan as one of seven trustees, of the Flight Attendant Medical Research Institute, established with a $300 mil - lion endowment from winning Broin.
“What we’ve done through the re - search organization,” Stanley says, is “to take basically bad money – profits made from addicting children, causing disease – and yet using that money for a good purpose. In terms of working for Wall Street and everything like that, the money’s good, but how many houses can you have? How many trips can you take, and how many expensive bottles of wine? It can’t match the satisfaction and gratification when you know you’re having a positive impact on people’s lives. Especially health, that’s the bottom line.”
He also has words of praise for the juries on their cases.
“After the two-year trial, getting the jury – who were exposed to all these tobacco lawyers, all the industry arguments – and to come back with the verdict of $145b., from the standpoint of a trial lawyer, that’s a great achievement,” he says. “You gotta compliment the jury, which basically sat there – there were some breaks, of course – but basically to sit there for two years, their lives on hold. So they also had to be public-spirited, and it was very much appreciated.
This story first appeared in the Jerusalem Post Magazine.