Big Tobacco case goes to jury today
The attorney for Florida's sick smokers accused the nation's top cigarette makers of issuing ``death warrants to innocent people,'' and asked one final time Thursday for a $154 billion judgment against the giant tobacco industry.
In a nationally watched case that could be decided as early as today, lawyer Stanley Rosenblatt asked jurors to punish the industry for destroying the lives of 300,000 to 700,000 smokers in Florida.
``These companies have been responsible for the destruction of lives, families, careers and dreams,'' Rosenblatt told the six jurors in the last day of arguments Thursday.
Angered by Philip Morris' claim earlier this week that a massive damage verdict would be a ``a death warrant'' for Big Tobacco, Rosenblatt turned the words back on the nation's largest cigarette maker:
``Philip Morris isn't getting any death warrant that Angie Della Vecchia did,'' he said, referring to the late New Port Richey housewife and lead plaintiff, who died of lung cancer a year ago. ``Angie Della Vecchia got a death warrant and thousands of other Floridians got death warrants.''
State Circuit Judge Robert Kaye will give the jury instructions this morning for its final deliberations in this 2-year-old trial -- the first class-action smokers' suit to go to trial in the nation's history.
Kaye will instruct the Miami jurors, who a year ago found the industry liable for deceiving smokers about the danger of cigarettes, to consider the current financial resources of the five tobacco defendants.
The six jurors -- including one former smoker and one current smoker -- are expected to begin deliberations immediately after Kaye's instructions. The jurors must decide whether and how much to punish each of the defendants, but under Florida law they cannot bankrupt the industry with their verdict.
The defendants' lawyers spent much of this week arguing that the tobacco companies have become ``responsible, corporate citizens,'' and that, if they must, jurors should only make Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, Lorillard and the Liggett Group pay a few hundred million dollars collectively for their past misconduct.
Industry lawyers said they are poised to appeal a punitive damage verdict to the state Third District Court of Appeal.
Rosenblatt and his lawyer wife, Susan, who have been waging a quixotic legal war against the industry since the class-action suit was filed in 1994, urged the jurors to issue a ``powerful statement'' that will punish the industry for a half-century of ``lies'' and deter Big Tobacco from ever committing such consumer fraud again.
``We are seeking punishment so that never again will an American industry inflict disease and death upon millions for nothing more than to satisfy their own lust for money and market share,'' Stanley Rosenblatt said.
His rebuttal argument, which ended at 3:50 p.m. Thursday, was greeted with light applause by dozens of Florida smokers who dominated half of the courtroom. Tobacco lawyers and publicists filled up the other half of the packed room.
Earlier in the week, Rosenblatt recommended to jurors that an ``appropriate, just number'' to punish the industry would be $154 billion.
He also proposed a range for the jury to consider -- $123 billion to $196 million -- and assigned different damage values to each company, depending on its share of the U.S. cigarette market.
Attorney Dan Webb, representing Philip Morris, the nation's largest cigarette maker with half of the market, decried the notion of the $154 billion award as ``a death warrant'' that would bankrupt the industry ``10 times over.''
Webb asserted that the financial value of the five tobacco companies amounted to $15.2 billion.