Tobacco Lawyer Makes Appeal to Jury

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

MIAMI (AP) — A tobacco company attorney urged jurors Wednesday not to make sick Florida smokers instantly rich with a huge punitive damage award in a landmark class-action case against the industry.

``They can become instant millionaires as a bonus above and beyond fully compensating them for their injuries,'' Dan Webb said in closing arguments. ``In many ways, the future of my client Philip Morris and its employees and its stockholders rest in your hands.''

Webb, who also is the lead attorney for five cigarette makers, doesn't want jurors to award punitive damages at all, but he suggested $75 million to $300 million as a framework for jury consideration rather than the smokers' request for $123 billion to $196 billion.

On Tuesday, Webb had called those numbers ``a death warrant'' for the industry. The request ``will destroy each of these companies, not once, but 10 times over.''

With half of U.S. cigarette sales, Philip Morris Inc. is being asked to pay the most money among the five tobacco companies.

If the jury awarded $75 million, the average sick smoker would receive about $150 if split among 500,000 people — a mid-range estimate of the number of smokers who could be eligible. If the jury granted the smokers' request for $196 billion, they would each receive almost $400,000.

The companies have argued that they should not be required to pay any more than their combined net worth of $15.3 billion, the difference between their assets and liabilities.

Another company attorney, Jim Johnson of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, opened his final remarks Wednesday by asking jurors not to act out of vengeance or a desire to destroy the tobacco companies.

Attorneys for Brown & Williamson Tobacco, Lorillard Tobacco and Liggett Group were to give their closing arguments later Wednesday and Thursday. The jury could get the case by the end of the week.

The six jurors already have decided during the two-year trial that the industry makes a deadly, defective product and has awarded $12.7 million in compensatory damages to the three representative smokers. The jury must now decide how much to award in punitive damages, which are intended to punish and deter misconduct.

The industry's key defense is that it has changed its ways since states began suing in 1994, and that the $257 billion national settlement with the states is enough to pay.

The case — the first smokers' class-action lawsuit to go to trial — is the gravest financial threat to the industry since the state settlements. Any decision will be appealed and could take at least two years to move through Florida's courts.

Under Florida law, a punitive damages verdict cannot put a company out of business and judges are required to reduce any award that would. In addition, some tobacco states in recent months have passed laws to protect the companies from having to post a ruinous amount of money while they appeal.


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