Fla. Smokers Seeking Up to $196 Bil

Tuesday, July 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MIAMI (AP) — Cigarette makers didn't care that their products caused disease and death ``as long as their cash registers kept clanging away,'' a smokers' attorney argued in a landmark smoking case seeking billions in punitive damages from the tobacco industry.

``Never have so few caused so much harm to so many for so long, and the day of reckoning has arrived,'' attorney Stanley Rosenblatt said as closing arguments began in the two-year trial involving 300,000 to 700,000 sick Florida smokers.

The industry was expected to begin its argument Tuesday. The case is expected to go to the jury late this week.

Rosenblatt on Monday suggested a punitive-damage award of $123 billion to $196 billion. He said $154 billion would be an appropriate total to punish the industry for five decades of ``deceit.''

The case — the first smokers' class-action lawsuit to go to trial — represents what could be the gravest legal threat to the nation's five biggest cigarette makers.

The six-member jury already has decided that the industry makes a deadly, defective product and awarded $12.7 million in compensatory damages to three representative smokers.

Tobacco companies think that figures in the ``billions are just for the Wall Street people, just for the investment bankers,'' Rosenblatt told jurors. ``Hopefully, you're going to show them that regular people not engaged in high finance are not intimidated by these numbers at all.''

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

But Circuit Judge Robert Kaye refused to set any limit on damages.

Florida law prohibits punitive verdicts that would put companies out of business and requires judges to reduce such awards. Also, some tobacco states — including Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky — have passed laws in recent months intended to shield the industry from the crippling effects of a big verdict.

Still, the verdict could easily set a U.S. record for punitive damages in a product liability case, surpassing the $4.8 billion against General Motors last year in a California car fire. A judge reduced that to $1.09 billion.

The key tobacco defense is that the industry has changed its ways since states began suing in 1994, and that a $257 billion settlement reached in those lawsuits two years ago is punishment enough.

Any decision will be appealed and could take at least two years to move through Florida's appeals courts.

The defendants are Philip Morris Inc., Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., Lorillard Tobacco Co., Liggett Group Inc. and the industry's defunct Council for Tobacco Research and Tobacco Institute.


On the Net:

Tobacco links: http://www.umich.edu/(tilde)umtrn/websites.html

Trial transcript service: http://www.engle.cc