Florida Jurors to Take Up Smoking Damages
MIAMI (Reuters) - Asking jurors to send a message to the world, a lawyer pressing Florida's landmark sick-smokers case wrapped up arguments on Tuesday and set the stage for a jury to begin weighing compensatory damages in a trial that could ultimately cos
The jury, the same one which last July 7 found America's big cigarette makers liable for the illnesses of as many as 1 million sick smokers in Florida, will be briefed on the legal requirements on Wednesday morning and will begin deliberating shortly afterward on compensatory damages for three people, the trial judge said.
The jury would then consider potentially massive punitive damages, if they award any of the more than $13 million in compensatory damages sought for the three.
``We want you to find that when an industry is fraudulent and they misrepresent and they conceal and they engage in a conspiracy and they do it intentionally, there will be consequences, they will be held accountable,'' plaintiffs attorney Stanley Rosenblatt said.
``In phase one (of the trial ), you reached the mountaintop, now we ask you to go to the summit,'' he said.
Ending seven days of closing arguments by both sides, Rosenblatt repeatedly reminded and complimented the jurors on their July verdict, a sweeping blow against an industry fighting scores of courtroom battles, attacked the quality and credibility of highly paid defense witnesses and argued against industry claims that any smoker could quit and had to accept responsibility for tobacco-related illnesses.
``When you have dishonest, illogical testimony combined with big bucks, you draw the conclusions,'' he said.
Rosenblatt's arguments on Tuesday were repeatedly interrupted by tobacco attorneys, who requested but were denied a mistrial.
The tobacco companies, which Rosenblatt called ''shameless,'' said he had no right to depict their evidence as intellectually dishonest and distortions of the truth.
``I have never had a case in which there have been so many disruptions,'' he said.
Rosenblatt has asked for between $10 million and $13 million for the three: a nurse with lung cancer, a woodworker with throat cancer and the widower of a housewife who died last year of lung cancer.
But if the jury awards any compensatory, or individual, damages, it will be then asked to fix punitive damages for all the sick smokers, a figure a tobacco lawyer has said could total $300 billion or more. A ruling on punitive damages, if any, appeared weeks away.
So far, among U.S. juries increasingly resistant to the tobacco industry's traditional defense that smokers know the risks of cigarettes, have at most awarded $1.7 million in compensatory damages to an individual, a dying housewife in California. The jury also awarded her $20 million in punitive damages.
At times yelling or speaking in a near hiss, Rosenblatt told the jurors the cigarette makers were offering misleading evidence, tricky or incompetent defense witnesses and were merely running from the consequences of their businesses by blaming the plaintiffs' illnesses on their decisions to smoke.
He showed a blow-up copy of a newspaper article reporting the 1994 congressional testimony of the chief executives of Philip Morris and fellow defendant RJ Reynolds Tobacco Holdings Inc. denying cigarette use was any more harmful to Americans than everyday snacks of Twinkie cakes.
``This is an industry without a conscience and it's an industry without a sense of shame,'' Rosenblatt said.
Defense lawyers fighting against compensatory damages for the three have said tens of millions of other U.S. smokers have quit and that the risks of smoking were widely and commonly known for decades. Smokers must bear responsibility for their illnesses, they said.