Cigarette Cos. Fail To Get Mistrial
MIAMI (AP) - A judge Thursday brushed aside a request for a mistrial in a landmark case against the tobacco companies, rejecting the suggestion jurors could have been influenced by a headline saying the companies could afford to pay billions in damages.
The judge refused the request after no jurors told him they had seen any news coverage, and the tobacco attorneys then resumed their closing arguments.
The 300,000 to 700,000 smokers accuse the industry of making a deadly, defective product and are asking for up to $196 billion in punitive damages.
The front-page headline in Thursday's Miami Herald read, ``Experts say tobacco firms can afford to pay billions.'' The tobacco companies have told jurors they cannot afford a multibillion-dollar verdict.
Philip Morris attorney Dan Webb asked for the mistrial outside the jury's presence. Circuit Judge Robert Kaye brought the jurors into the courtroom and asked them collectively if they had been exposed to any publicity about the case since they went home Wednesday.
The jurors are instructed not to read articles or watch reports of the trial, and Kaye asks that question daily.
When no jurors said they had seen any stories, Kaye continued the trial without comment.
Attorney Anthony Upshaw, representing Brown & Williamson, the last company to address the jury, told the jury it must decide whether it is ``necessary to spank (the cigarette companies) or destroy them.''
The tobacco attorneys have argued that even a multimillion-dollar punitive damage award would snuff out the industry.
R.J. Reynolds attorney Jim Johnson said Wednesday his company cannot pay a substantial award because its current debts outpace its ready cash. ``Like many individuals, Reynolds is living paycheck to paycheck.''
Webb asked jurors not to make smokers rich with a big verdict.
``They can become instant millionaires as a bonus above and beyond fully compensating them for their injuries,'' he said. ``In many ways, the future of my client Philip Morris and its employees and its stockholders rest in your hands.''
If the jury awarded $75 million, the average smoker would receive about $150 if it were split among 500,000 people. If the jury awarded the $154 billion suggested by the smokers, the average payout would be more than $300,000.
The attorney for Liggett, the smallest corporate defendant, called the smokers' request irresponsible given the company's break with the industry in 1997 to begin settling lawsuits.
``Liggett has shown that a tobacco company can act responsibly,'' Aaron Marks said.
The six-member jury already has awarded $12.7 million in compensatory damages to three representative smokers. The jury must now decide how much to award in punitive damages, which are intended to punish and deter misconduct.
The key tobacco defense is that the industry has changed its ways since states began suing in 1994, and that $257 billion in settlements is enough.
The companies have argued that they should not be required to pay any more than their combined net worth of $15.3 billion, the difference between their assets and liabilities.
The case is the first smokers' class-action lawsuit to go to trial and the most serious financial threat to the industry. Any verdict will be appealed and could take at least two years to move through Florida's courts.
Other defendants are Lorillard Tobacco and the industry's defunct Council for Tobacco Research and Tobacco Institute.