Ex-CEO Speaks in Tobacco Case
MIAMI (AP) - The dissident owner of the Liggett Group tobacco company told jurors considering punitive damages in a landmark smokers' case Thursday that he wants to stay in business so he can attack major cigarette makers from the inside.
``I honestly believe it's very important that we stay in business, that we be the maverick of the industry, that we beat the industry up and make them do the right thing,'' Bennett LeBow said.
About 300,000 to 700,000 sick Florida smokers want a multibillion-dollar judgment to penalize the industry for decades of misconduct. The industry wants the jury to award nothing based on its $254 billion commitment to state lawsuit settlements.
LeBow was the first tobacco chief to say smoking is deadly and addictive, words from three years ago that he repeated forcefully to the jury. He also offered a message to three smokers awarded $12.7 million in compensatory damages in the Miami case.
``There's nothing I can do to bring back your loved ones. That can't be done. There's nothing I can do to bring back your health,'' he said. ``But I promise you I will continue to fight this war and win this war on tobacco.''
Attorneys of other tobacco companies harshly questioned LeBow on his health concerns and attacked his financial motivations.
Liggett, which sells 1.2 billion cigarettes a year in the United States, in 1998 disclosed plans to expand capacity at the company's Russian factory from 20 billion to 30 billion cigarettes a year, LeBow acknowledged.
Before LeBow took the stand, Philip Morris attorney Dan Webb lost attempts to separate Liggett from the other four cigarette makers in the case and to severely restrict his testimony.
``He's entitled to say something in his defense,'' said Circuit Judge Robert Kaye. ``He's here to plead his case.''
LeBow broke with the rest of the tobacco industry in 1996 by settling state lawsuits and followed up in 1997 with more settlements, admissions about the health dangers of smoking and the disclosure of thousands of secret industry documents.
``I think it's my duty to do it, almost,'' said LeBow, who built his reputation as a takeover artist and bought Liggett as an investment in 1986. ``I feel very good doing it. I sleep well at night.''
For its efforts, Liggett received special treatment under the settlements and won't pay any more money unless its market share, declining for more than a decade, climbs above 1997 levels.
``It's called a just reward for having done what we did,'' LeBow testified, saying he believed there would be no nationwide settlement without the steps his company took.
The jury already has decided the industry makes a deadly, defective product. Smokers' witnesses have testified the industry can raise $150 billion to $157 billion to pay a punitive award.
Besides Liggett, the defendants are Philip Morris Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., Lorillard Tobacco Co. and the industry's defunct Council for Tobacco Research and Tobacco Institute.