Susan Rosenblatt, who took on major tobacco, dies at age 70

Susan Rosenblatt, who with her husband and law partner, Stanley Rosenblatt, took on Big Tobacco in a Florida case that seemed like an absurd mismatch for their small business, but resulted in a record $144.8 billion jury award in favor of people who became ill from cigarettes, died Nov. 14 in Houston. She was 70.

Her death, at MD Anderson Cancer Center, was confirmed by her son David Rosenblatt, who said the cause was acute myeloid leukemia.

Mrs. Rosenblatt, who lived in Miami Beach, was the quieter side of the Rosenblatt firm; in the tobacco and other high-profile lawsuits, Stanley Rosenblatt did many of the in-court presentations and post-court press conferences. But it was Ms. Rosenblatt’s legal knowledge—the research she did, the instructions she wrote—that provided the ammunition that enabled their successes.

“I would always say I didn’t have a dream team, I had Susan,” said Mr. Rosenblatt in a telephone interview.

That dream team (which also included a small support staff) was never more challenged than by the 1994 case the Rosenblatts filed against RJ Reynolds and other tobacco companies on behalf of seven smokers — one of whom, Dr. Howard A. Engle, was the pediatrician for most of Rosenblatts’ nine children and became the lead prosecutor. The case was certified as a class action representing all Florida smokers, a group that included hundreds of thousands of people.

The case, which at the time was being brought against the industry by states and individuals, dragged on for years. In 1996, when the largest of those cases, a national class-action case, was dismissed by a federal appeals panel in New Orleans, Mr. Rosenblatt told The New York Times, “Now it’s up to Ma and Pa Kettle.” He and his wife went ahead with the Engle case, arguing that the industry deliberately addicted smokers and failed to adequately warn them of the dangers of their products.

In 2000, a jury awarded several representative plaintiffs $12.7 million in damages, followed by an astonishing class-wide damages: nearly $145 billion, the largest damages in history.

The price did not stand; in 2003, a Florida appeals committee dismissed it, arguing, among other things, that the case should not have been classed as a class action because every smoker’s case is unique. But the Rosenblatts’ efforts were not in vain: In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that persons seeking to prosecute cases could rely on some of the jury’s original findings, including that smoking causes lung cancer, nicotine in cigarettes is addictive, and that the cigarette companies withheld information about the health effects of smoking.

Individual lawsuits, known as the Engle Progeny Cases, have worked through the Florida courts ever since, some successfully and some not. Mr Rosenblatt said the legacy of his and his wife’s work set the precedent.

“The fraud, the conspiracy — there’s now a record of how bad the tobacco industry had been all those years,” he said.

Susan Goldman was born on January 5, 1951 in Brooklyn. Her parents, Sol and Shirley (Kaslow) Goldman, ran a real estate company together.

When Susan was about 10, the family moved to Miami Beach. Academically, she was a child prodigy, enrolling at the University of Miami at age 13 and graduating in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in economics. She graduated from the university’s law school in 1972. She obtained a master’s degree in law in 1978.

She and Mr. Rosenblatt married in 1980. She maintained her own professional practice until her growing family took precedence.

“But after three kids, I got really bored,” she told The Miami Herald in 1996. “I’m not the type to go out with friends for lunch.”

So she started working with her husband, even though their family continued to grow.

“I was lucky enough to get pregnant easily,” she told The Herald. “And the kind of work I do is reading case studies, reading testimonials, preparing briefings, what I could do in bed at home.”

While Ma and Pa Kettle’s self-description was apt in some ways, the Rosenblatts were hardly neophytes when they took over the tobacco companies. They had won important awards for plaintiffs in a number of cases. Most notably, they had already tackled the tobacco industry in another case, representing airline flight attendants who claimed their health had been harmed by secondhand smoke during the time when smoking was allowed on airplanes. That case, filed in 1991, ended in 1997 with a settlement in which the cigarette manufacturers agreed to pay $300 million for the study of tobacco-related diseases.

Ms Rosenblatt said she had been reluctant to tackle Big Tobacco – “I thought it was chasing windmills,” she told The Times in 2000. But, her husband said, she came over and pushed him forward, knowing he got a kick out of ripping off the tobacco managers he’d come to taunt.

“I think she was kidding me,” he said. “Take these guys’ statements and have fun, and it’s not going anywhere.” And it took over our lives.”

When the Engle case went through, the tobacco industry, as in other cases, tried to bury its opponents in motions and challenges, hoping to exhaust the lawyers and the plaintiffs. During the trial itself, which lasted nearly two years, the companies sometimes engaged skilled lawyers to question a single witness or defend a single motion, Mr Rosenblatt said, relying on his wife.

“Sometimes all I used to question those witnesses was what Susan had prepared for me,” he said. And while he was doing the cross-examination, the next day she would work on what he needed.

If Mr. Rosenblatt drew the most attention, Mrs. Rosenblatt, as The Chicago Sun-Times described her in 2000, was “the expert on law who balanced his expertise before the jury, all the more worrisome compared to his lanky nonchalance, the detail person balances his big picture.”

In addition to her husband and their son David, Mrs. Rosenblatt has two other sons, Joshua and Moshe; six daughters, Miriam Hoffman, Rachel Gdanski, Rebecca Assaraf, Jaclyn Richter, Rina Kleiner, and Sharon Franco; a brother, Alan Goldman; a sister, Ruth Schwager; and 30 grandchildren.

Busy as they were, the Rosenblatts, being Orthodox Jews, never worked on the Sabbath, and yet Mrs. Rosenblatt sometimes complained that she was spending so much time on business at the expense of family life. However, Mr Rosenblatt said there was a philosophy behind their domestic madness.

“Susan felt, and I agreed with her, that the most important thing parents can do is set an example,” he said.

Ms. Hoffman, the couple’s eldest daughter, said a piece of family history pooled Ms Rosenblatt’s legal expertise and parenting skills. At one point, she said, her mother bought a used mini school bus—yellow, of course—to carry the brood here and there. A neighbor in Miami Beach complained that parking a yellow school bus in a residential area was a violation of the city code. Ms. Rosenblatt, Ms. Hoffman said, convinced an administrative judge that if the bus wasn’t yellow, it would comply. So she painted the thing green.

“That was my mother,” Mrs. Hoffman said by email. “She always had a special way of doing things. Unlike anyone else.”

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