Judge bars "average Joe" witnesses for cigarette firms
MIAMI, May 19 (Reuters) - The judge in Florida's sick smokers case on Friday snuffed out cigarette makers' plans to sway jurors with evidence on the harm massive punitive damages could do convenience-shop owners and factory-floor workers.
Bracing for a punitive damages verdict possibly totalling hundreds of billions of dollars, tobacco companies had sought to present evidence to jurors in coming weeks that Big Tobacco has improved its sales practices and had already suffered substantial losses in legal settlements.
Six jurors were scheduled on Monday to begin hearing arguments and evidence in the third and final phase of the high-stakes Engle trial in Miami on behalf of an estimated 500,000 sick smokers in Florida.
The same jurors last year found Philip Morris, maker of Marlboros, and other cigarette makers liable for fraud, conspiracy, and the lung cancer and other ailments of the smokers.
In April, the jurors awarded $12.7 million to a nurse, a woodworker and the widower of a dead housewife for pain, suffering and other actual losses. The total to the three, standing as representatives of all the plaintiffs, was the highest yet awarded to sick smokers for actual losses.
Judge Robert Kaye of Miami-Dade County Circuit Court refused in written rulings to allow tobacco-industry lawyers to present evidence on industry donations to charities or the harm a stinging punitive damages judgment would do to ad revenues at African-American newspapers or the incomes of tobacco farmers and low-level workers in cigarette factories or warehouses.
``The individuals who may testify are those people that make the decisions because they have the knowledge, such as comptroller, chief of personnel or vice president of the company,'' Kaye said.
Kaye also told the cigarette makers they could not argue for a reduced punitive award on grounds many of the sick smokers would later sue for compensatory, or actual, damages in separate, follow-up trials.
Tobacco companies were also barred from telling jurors about the $250 billion the industry has agreed to pay under deals reached in the late 1990s to compensate state governments for treating ailing and dying smokers.
A spokesman for Philip Morris was not immediately available to comment on Kaye's rulings.
Two weeks ago, Florida lawmakers passed a bill sheltering the state's $450 million in annual tobacco-industry payments threatened by the Engle class-action lawsuit.
That bill eased Wall Street fears the cigarette makers might be forced into bankruptcy by capping at $100 million the total bond the industry would have to post while appealing the verdicts and jury awards in Engle, which was named after a pediatrician with emphysema blamed on cigarettes.
Before that bill, the industry would have had to post 120 percent of the jury awards while lawyers made appeals.