Closing Arguments in Smoking Trial
MIAMI (AP) - The tobacco industry intentionally ruined millions of lives but keeps stonewalling to delay any financial consequences, a smokers' attorney said Monday in a final request for punitive damages.
``This industry has left a half-century trail of deceit which has decimated millions of Americans,'' Stanley Rosenblatt said as closing arguments started for punitive damages began in the landmark, 2-year-old case. ``Never have so few caused so much harm to so many for so long, and the day of reckoning has arrived.''
Each side has two days to summarize the landmark class-action case on behalf of 300,000 to 700,000 sick Florida smokers.
The same jury already has decided that the industry makes a deadly, defective product and awarded $12.7 million in compensatory damages to three representative smokers.
The lawsuit listed $200 billion in punitive damages but Rosenblatt could adjust that figure in his closing argument.
Witnesses in the landmark class-action case, filed on behalf of an estimated 300,000 to 700,000 sick Florida smokers, have said the five companies named in the lawsuit could afford $150 billion.
Circuit Judge Robert Kaye refused to set any limit on possible damages. However, Florida law says a punitive verdict cannot put a company out of business, and judges are required to reduce any award that would.
The case is expected to go to the jury late this week. Any award will be appealed and the case is expected to take at least two years to move through Florida appeal courts.
Given the numbers the jury has heard, the verdict could easily set a new U.S. record for punitive damages in a product liability case, surpassing the $4.8 billion judgment against General Motors last year in a California car fire. A judge slashed that award to $1.09 billion.
Soon after testimony began in 1998, the industry settled lawsuits with all 50 states. Over the next 25 years, payments are expected to total $254 billion.
The key tobacco defense is that the industry has changed its ways since attorneys general began suing in 1994, the same year the smokers' suit was filed.
Rosenblatt disputed that in his closing.
``Have you really changed or is it all fluff?'' he asked. ``Are you going to have to pay the price for your misconduct?''
Liggett Group Inc. has been at the forefront of the industry's position, saying for three years that smoking causes cancer and is addictive. The company turned over thousands of secret industry documents that pushed other companies into the settlements in 1998, sold its premium cigarette brands and no longer advertises.
Lorillard Tobacco Co. admitted the health risks of smoking for the first time on the witness stand last month. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. took that position earlier.
Industry-leading Philip Morris Inc. and No. 2 R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. cite public-health warnings about the risks of smoking but do not say as a matter of company policy that smoking causes disease.