Big tobacco goes to trial next week
Unless halted by the Louisiana Supreme Court or a hurricane threat, the trial of a statewide class-action lawsuit against the nation's biggest tobacco companies is set to begin Tuesday morning in Civil District Court in New Orleans.
The trial, which could last six months to a year, will begin with opening statements, first by attorneys who filed the case on behalf of thousands of current and former Louisiana smokers. They will be followed by attorneys for cigarette makers, including R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris and Brown & Williamson.
After the attorneys map out what they intend to prove, 12 jurors and seven alternates will begin hearing testimony. Lists of 300 prospective witnesses and more than 6,000 possible exhibits have been submitted to Civil District Judge Richard Ganucheau, who will preside over the trial.
The only thing that could keep the trial from going forward Tuesday would be Hurricane Isidore or a state Supreme Court order granting the tobacco companies' request for a postponement.
Meanwhile, pretrial battle was continuing on another front late Friday. Attorneys for the tobacco companies scored a victory when the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal reversed Ganucheau's decision to bar them from presenting evidence aimed at showing that smokers brought on their own health problems.
The jurors, all of them nonsmokers, will be paid $16 per day for their services, and work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, with lunch provided.
The jury will not be asked to make the tobacco companies pay damages to the class. Instead, its job will be to decide whether to make the tobacco firms pay for programs to help healthy smokers quit and annual medical monitoring to detect smoking-related illnesses.
To win their case, attorneys for the class must convince the jury that tobacco firms manipulated the level of nicotine in cigarettes to keep smokers addicted.
Attorneys for the cigarette-makers contend that nicotine is neither addictive nor manipulated. They tried unsuccessfully to head off the class-action trial by arguing that each smoker's reaction to cigarettes is different, so such claims should be tried individually.
The trial is getting under way after more than a year of selecting jurors and alternates, a process that was stretched out, in part, by the tobacco defendants' frequent appeal of Ganucheau's rulings.
The Louisiana smokers' class-action suit will be the second in the nation to go to trial. A similar medical monitoring case on behalf of a class of 250,000 current and former smokers living in West Virginia was tried over two months last fall and ended with the jury finding in favor of the tobacco defendants.
That verdict is expected to be appealed.