Smoking Trial Final Arguments Due


Sunday, July 9th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


MIAMI (AP) — Having placed the blame for hundreds of thousands of ailing smokers on the cigarette makers, jurors in Florida's landmark smokers trial soon must decide how Big Tobacco should be punished. The industry is bracing for what could be a blockbuster award.

In closing arguments set to start Monday, smokers' attorney Stanley Rosenblatt is expected to set a figure on the punitive damages he thinks the jury should levy on the nation's five biggest cigarette makers.

Witnesses in the landmark class-action case, filed on behalf of some 300,000 to 700,000 sick Florida smokers, contended that the companies could afford to pay $150 billion.

The lawsuit listed $200 billion but Rosenblatt can adjust that figure.

Lead tobacco attorney Dan Webb has warned against going even higher, possibly to $300 billion, saying that could wreck the industry. ``These companies have their survival at stake,'' he said.

The companies want a punitive verdict of zero but sought an upper limit of $15.3 billion, their audited net worth. The industry already is paying $10 billion a year in settlements.

Circuit Judge Robert Kaye refused to set any limit on possible damages. However, Florida law says a punitive verdict cannot put a company out of business, and judges are required to reduce any award that would.

The case is expected to go to the jury late this week. Any award will be appealed and the case is expected to take at least two years to move through Florida appeal courts.

Given the numbers the jury has heard, the verdict could easily set a U.S. record in punitive damages in a product liability case, surpassing the $4.8 billion judgment against General Motors last year in a California car fire. A judge slashed that award to $1.09 billion.

The jury already has decided the industry makes a deadly, defective product and awarded $12.7 million in compensatory damages to three smokers with cancer who represented other Florida smokers. The smokers argue the industry should be required to pay for 45 years of lies, fraud and conspiracy.

The jury's decisions so far may reflect a greater willingness to accept addiction as a legitimate defense for smokers and to blame tobacco companies for their longtime unwillingness to accept responsibility for consumers' illnesses.

``The tobacco industry has been carrying on a public-relations campaign for 50 years, and the centerpiece of that campaign has been to blame the people who buy the product for being stupid enough to buy the product,'' said Woody Wilner, a Jacksonville attorney pursuing individual smoker lawsuits.

Soon after testimony began, the industry settled lawsuits with all 50 states. Over the next 25 years, payments are expected to total $254 billion.

That figure should be enough and no punitive damages should be awarded, the tobacco companies have argued.

But Robert Hirschhorn, a Texas-based jury consultant who has rebuffed recruitment by both sides in tobacco cases, believes jurors will hold the settlements against the defendants.

``Agreeing to pay large settlements affects people's perceptions on the question of whether or not the tobacco companies are right or wrong on these issues,'' he said. ``You don't pay out $100 billion if you haven't done something wrong, even if you don't admit it.''

The key industry defense against punitive damages is that the industry has changed its ways since state attorneys general began suing in 1994, the same year the smokers' suit was filed.

Liggett Group Inc. has been at the forefront, saying for three years that smoking causes cancer and is addictive. The company turned over thousands of secret industry documents that pushed other companies into the settlements in 1998, sold its premium cigarette brands and no longer advertises.

Lorillard Tobacco Co. executives admitted the health risks of smoking for the first time on the witness stand last month. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. took that position earlier.

Industry-leading Philip Morris Inc. and No. 2 R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. cite public-health warnings about the risks of smoking but do not say as a matter of company policy that smoking causes disease.

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On the Net:

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