Court Says 9 New Jurors Needed for Tobacco Trial
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Nine jurors must be replaced before a trial can begin in a class-action lawsuit that seeks to require tobacco companies to pay for medical tests for Louisiana smokers, the state Supreme Court has ruled.
The trial had been scheduled to begin on Sept. 5, but was delayed by defense appeals challenging the impartiality of the jury. No date had been set for new jury selection to resume, a Civil District Court spokesman said on Wednesday after the Louisiana Supreme Court ruling.
Louisiana law prohibits punitive damages in product liability cases, so the New Orleans trial is not expected to result in a multibillion-dollar award against the tobacco industry, in contrast to recent trials in California and Florida. No individual damages are being sought for the class.
The state Supreme Court late on Tuesday refused the tobacco companies' petition to throw out the entire jury impaneled last summer. But it ruled that replacements were needed for four jurors and five alternate jurors whose deliberations might be swayed by their desire for close relatives to get free medical tests.
``On balance, we think that the revised jury is an improvement for the tobacco defendants,'' Martin Feldman, a tobacco industry analyst at Salomon Smith Barney, said on Tuesday after the ruling.
The suit calls for the tobacco companies to underwrite 25-year medical testing and smoking cessation programs for an estimated 500,000 current and former smokers in Louisiana.
Jurors will first decide if the tobacco companies manipulated nicotine levels in cigarettes to keep smokers addicted and if that makes cigarettes defective products under Louisiana liability law. If so, the second phase of the trial will be to determine if the 25-year program is warranted as a remedy.
The suit is one of two ``medical-monitoring'' class actions that have been certified by courts in the United States. The other, in West Virginia, began earlier this month.
Plaintiffs must prove that early screenings to detect lung cancer and other cigarette-related diseases would lead to earlier treatment and fewer deaths. Tobacco officials maintain that people are not entitled to free medical tests or classes to stop smoking just because they chose to smoke a legal product.
No one was available for comment on the ruling because the trial judge has imposed a gag order on both sides and their witnesses.