Local Obituaries

Judge Robert Kaye, who decided $145 billion verdict against Big Tobacco, dies at 86

Judge Robert Paul Kaye at his circuit court seat during a suit against the nation’s top tobacco companies. The trial lasted from 1998 to 2000 and resulted in a jury verdict against the companies in a landmark $145 billion decision.
Judge Robert Paul Kaye at his circuit court seat during a suit against the nation’s top tobacco companies. The trial lasted from 1998 to 2000 and resulted in a jury verdict against the companies in a landmark $145 billion decision. Miami Herald file

UPDATE: Due to misinformation, an earlier version of this story erroneously reported that Kaye had no children. Kaye is survived by his daughter Laura Morris.

Four years alone were spent on legal wrangling so that the case could even go to trial before Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Robert Kaye in a downtown Miami courtroom on July 6, 1998.

Two agonizing years, the longest civil trial in American history, would pass before a verdict. To get there, jurors and the legal teams sat through 200 days of trial, and pored over some 56,000 pages of testimony from 157 witnesses.

Four nonsmokers, one smoker, one former smoker, a pool made up of an assistant principal, a postal worker, a telephone technician, a welder, a bank teller and a Miami-Dade school employee filled the jury seats.

Judge Kaye, an ex-smoker, finally had their verdict in his hands. Like a master thespian who knows precisely when to deliver a line for maximum impact, Kaye wasn’t about to blurt out the result.

“He looked at that verdict and he looked around the courtroom. And he looked at the verdict again,” recalled attorney Stanley Rosenblatt, who filed that initial suit against the nation’s five largest tobacco companies.

“Tell us already!” attorneys Stanley and wife Susan Rosenblatt, along with the opposing attorneys for the tobacco companies, the media and a fascinated public wanted to scream.

“His comment was, ‘A lot of zeroes.’ And that was typical of him. He had a very good sense of humor,” Stanley Rosenblatt said Wednesday of Kaye, the state circuit judge who died Feb. 8 of complications from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at his retirement home in Ocala. Kaye was 86.

“A lot of zeroes.”

Indeed. The Miami jury rocked Big Tobacco with a judgment of nearly $145 billion for deceiving Florida’s sickest smokers about the deadly nature of their cigarette products. The figure was the biggest civil damage award in U.S. history.

“It was a day of reckoning,” Rosenblatt said at the time in a 2000 Miami Herald article.

Kaye, who even forbid the jury from watching the 1999 Al Pacino movie, The Insider, because it portrayed a cigarette company executive who discloses an industry coverup of the dangers of smoking, was finally ready to make his own statement to the jurors.

Our system of justice is not perfect, but we do the best we can.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Robert Kaye to the jurors after a two-year trial ended in 2000.

“Our system of justice is not perfect, but we do the best we can,” he said in 2000. “You gave up your jobs, your travels, your everyday existence for two years. You know about the law. You know a lot about science. And above all, you know a lot more about human nature. You formed a lot of friendships.”

And with that, a year later, Kaye, too, was done with the courtroom after three decades. He retired from a stellar career to Ocala with his wife of 29 years, Aurelija.

Born March 4, 1929, in Garden City, New York, Kaye wasn’t an instant legal maverick. He graduated from the University of Miami School of Law in 1957, but he sidestepped his degree to spend 13 years as an announcer, newscaster and DJ at several local AM stations, WINZ, WQAM and WIOD.

Mixing tears and laughter, Aurelija Kaye recalled her first exposure to the man who would later become her husband. During summer and winter holidays in the late-1950s, she would visit Florida from her New Jersey home. Kaye was the voice on the radio. “The funny part of it is I can’t believe I listened to him as a teenager and then I married him,” she said.

Life with a judge was, well, actually easier than one would think.

“We basically didn’t disagree — maybe on foreign policy — but we really agreed on practically everything,” Aurelija Kaye said. “If I had a discussion with him, in certain ways, I’d prevail. But in terms of the bench, I could never equal him. I had great respect for his intelligence and his compassion. He was the most gracious, gorgeous, intelligent man and he was the love of my life.”

Kaye left radio for a law career in 1970, when State Attorney Richard Gerstein recruited him as a prosecutor.

“I started at the bottom in traffic court, and I ended my career in the state attorney’s office as chief of the major crimes division,” Kaye said in a brief biography. Gov. Bob Graham appointed Kaye as a circuit judge in September 1981. He served two years in the criminal division and switched to the civil section.

The Big Tobacco case was his last — and what a way to go out.

Judge Kaye was a very interesting guy… a tough judge without being overbearing…reasonable and fair.

Attorney Stanley Rosenblatt, who filed a class action suit against Big Tobacco in 1994.

“Susan and I have fond memories of Judge Kaye,” Stanley Rosenblatt said. “If you’re dealing with a bad or irascible or stupid judge and you’re stuck with him for two years, that would be absolute torture. With Kaye, I wouldn’t say it was a pleasure, but almost a pleasure. He ran the courtroom, a tough judge, without being overbearing. But he was reasonable. Fair.

“To show how conservative he was, at the beginning, Rush Limbaugh was his hero. He’d listen to him,” Rosenblatt added. “He evolved, he changed during that trial. … He had both streaks, a conservative and a liberal streak. Even when he ruled against us we never had a feeling of prejudice. Even when we felt he was wrong about something we felt he was trying to do the right thing.”

Kaye is survived by his daughter Laura Morris. Services were held in Ocala.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen