Big Tobacco Making Objections

Monday, July 17th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MIAMI (AP) — A routine act that wraps up most trials, the signing of the final judgment, is ``a big issue'' to Big Tobacco and may dictate the future of a smokers' case that produced a record $145 billion verdict, a tobacco lawyer said Monday.

Judgments are normally signed by the trial judge within days of a verdict, but it will be delayed in this case while Big Tobacco pursues its argument that the trial isn't over until the individual claims of up to 700,000 sick Florida smokers are decided.

Circuit Judge Robert Kaye said he hoped to sign the order this week, but lead tobacco attorney Dan Webb said he wasn't yet prepared to offer motions addressing the legal issues involved.

``I'm not going to argue that,'' he said in court Monday. ``That's a big issue.''

But smokers' attorney Susan Rosenblatt argued that post-verdict issues, including a request by tobacco to reduce the dollar amount as excessive, shouldn't delay entry of a final order officially ending the case. She said interest on the punitive damages should accumulate from Friday, the day of the verdict.

Kaye left the timing of the signing open-ended, but Webb outlined a schedule that wouldn't bring lawyers back to court again until late August.

``It's only fair to hear all the arguments before you make a ruling,'' Kaye said after adjourning a half-hour hearing.

Outside court, Webb said, ``We'll just take it one day at a time.'' He repeated he was ``very confident'' the class-action case will be reversed on appeal.

A final order is needed to move a case to appeal, but the industry argues no final order can be signed until decisions are made on the individual compensatory damage claims of up to 700,000 sick Florida smokers covered by the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, Kaye said his hesitation before reading the verdict Friday was based on the number of zeros written by the jury foreman on the verdict form. The form spelled out each number with its full compliment of zeroes, for example $73,960,000,000, rather than $73.96 billion.

``I didn't know whether I was reading billions or millions. That turned out to be a problem,'' the judge said. On the bench, he said, he was thinking, 'Is this thousands, millions or billions?'''