Asbestos-related tobacco case ends in mistrial
NEW YORK, Jan 25 (Reuters) - The first U.S. trial of tobacco firms alleging that smoking added to the health risks of people exposed to asbestos ended in a mistrial in federal court in Brooklyn Thursday, with death threats by a juror.
The jury said it was deadlocked after four days of deliberations in the case brought by the trustees of the Johns Manville Personal Injury Settlement Trust, which argued that the tobacco industry should be required to pay its ``fair share'' of damages the industry allegedly caused the trust's claimants.
Plaintiffs attorneys said they planned to re-try the case as soon as possible, but lawyers for the companies maintained there was no legal basis for the claims.
In the trial before U.S. District Court Judge Jack Weinstein, the trust argued that the tobacco companies, including the two biggest, Philip Morris Cos Inc. and R.J. Reynolds, concealed medical evidence about the deadly synergy between asbestos exposure and tobacco use.
R.J. Reynolds, the second-largest U.S. tobacco company after Philip Morris, is the cigarette-making unit of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings Inc. Other defendants were Lorillard Tobacco Co., a unit of Loews Corp.; American Tobacco Company, and Liggett Group Inc., a unit of Vector Group Ltd. and British American Tobacco Plc, the parent company of Brown & Williamson.
The independent trust fund, set up by building products maker Johns Manville Corp. to pay asbestos victims claims, brought a suit against the tobacco industry, alleging that smoking adds to the health risks of asbestos exposure.
The case is widely known as Falise, after the chairman and managing trustee of the trust, Robert Falise.
One juror in the case, Aaron Barlow, 49, told reporters after the judge declared a mistrial that the jury was deadlocked ``10 to 2 in favor of the tobacco companies 20 minutes into the deliberation'' and never bridged the gap.
``Frankly, I think the whole case was a waste of time,'' Barlow said, adding that while individual smokers ``may have a case against the tobacco companies, the trust does not.''
The jury sent out a note to the judge saying one juror was threatening to kill another if the first juror had to ``stay here any longer.''
The two holdouts told reporters that they believed the other jurors had made up their minds before deliberations even began.
Maggie Altidor and Phyllis Ellis said they thought the tobacco industry should be held accountable. Altidor said deliberations ended when a male juror told them if deliberations went on, ``one of us would get killed. It got very personal.''
Plaintiffs attorney Edward Westbrook said he was "disappointed that we'll have to try this case again.
``We'll make another good run at the tobacco companies,'' Westbrook said."
Asbestos, an indestructible fireproof insulator that is no longer used, can be deadly because inhalation of its fibers can lead to lung cancer and other serious diseases.
``This suit ended in a mistrial, but the fact remains that there is no legitimate basis, legal or factual, for these types of cases,'' said Daniel Donahue, senior vice president and deputy general counsel for R.J. Reynolds.
William Ohlemeyer, Philip Morris' vice president and associate general counsel, said ``a major focus of the plaintiffs' case was alleged industry misconduct that occurred long before the Trust was created and had nothing to do with any decisions made or actions taken by the Trust.''
On Dec. 20, Berkshire Hathaway Inc. said it agreed to buy Johns Manville for $13 per share in cash, or about $1.92 billion.
``We would consider this mistrial essentially a win for the industry,'' Salomon Smith Barney tobacco industry analyst Martin Feldman said in a research note.
Investors in tobacco-related companies seemed relatively pleased with the news of the mistrial, sending shares of tobacco companies broadly higher on Thursday afternoon.
Philip Morris shares rose 5/16 to close at $44-13/16, after trading as high as $45-1/4, on the New York Stock Exchange. R.J. Reynolds, which released its fourth quarter and year-end results on Thursday, jumped $2-9/16 to a new 52-week high of $53-13/16, also on the NYSE.