2 Cigarette Makers Are Said to Discuss Settling All Smokers' Suits
Two of the nation's major cigarette companies have been engaged in preliminary talks with plaintiffs' lawyers as part of a bid to reach a nationwide settlement of all smokers' claims against the tobacco industry, lawyers involved with the talks said yeste
Spokesmen for the two companies, Lorillard Tobacco and the Liggett Group, declined to comment, Other cigarette makers said they had no intention of settling.
The disclosure was made as a federal judge in Brooklyn issued an order yesterday that could provide a mechanism for reaching a global settlement of claims by smokers.
Judge Jack B. Weinstein of Federal District Court told the parties to come to court Monday prepared to consider a suggestion by plaintiffs' lawyers to spin off claims for punitive damages against cigarette makers into a nationwide class- action suit, with separate trials for claims for compensatory damages.
Such a division would be unique. Plaintiffs' lawyers, in pressing for a separate punitive damages suit, are apparently seeking to play on the companies' biggest concern.
Earlier this year, a state jury in Florida issued a $144.8 billion punitive award to members of a class- action lawsuit brought on behalf of all Florida residents who had been made sick by smoking. The companies have appealed that verdict.
Months ago, Judge Weinstein made a bid to create a class action for all claims, but the companies rejected his suggestions. Spokesmen for the nation's three biggest cigarette makers â€” the Philip Morris Companies, J. R. Reynolds Tobacco and the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company â€” also criticized the latest plan.
"We have no intention whatsoever of settling these lawsuits and we are not discussing settlement with plaintiffs' attorneys or anyone else," said Mark Smith, a spokesman for Brown & Williamson, a unit of British American Tobacco P.L.C.
William S. Ohlemeyer, associate general counsel for Philip Morris, rejected the proposal, saying "we intend to vigorously oppose any attempts by this federal court to consolidate these cases."
In recent years, tobacco companies agreed to pay $246 billion to settle suits brought by state attorneys general. But that settlement did not foreclose claims by individual smokers, as in Florida.
A spokesman for Liggett, a unit of the Vector Group that is the smallest of the major cigarette makers, declined to comment. Liggett has previously sought to settle litigation against it.
But the apparent interest of Lorillard Tobacco, a unit of the Loews Corporation, in settlement talks comes as a surprise. A Lorillard spokesman said it was not company practice to comment on litigation or potential litigation.