Judge urged to shut down Philip Morris Web site
Fearing Philip Morris' new Internet site will sway Miami jurors, an attorney for 500,000 sick Florida smokers asked a judge Thursday to shut it down.
Lawyer Stanley Rosenblatt said the Web site amounts to propaganda that might poison the six jurors who will decide next month how much U.S. tobacco companies should be financially punished for deceiving the landmark class of smokers.
"Philip Morris is in violation of Your Honor's gag order," Rosenblatt told Circuit Judge Robert Kaye. The judge issued the order last year barring the two sides from talking about the Miami case with the news media.
Rosenblatt contended Philip Morris, the world's biggest cigarette maker, has used the Web site to reach jurors by openly admitting that smoking causes fatal diseases such as lung cancer so they won't punish tobacco companies as harshly for past lies. The damage phase of the trial starts Nov. 1, following this summer's verdict that found the companies had lied about the addictiveness of smoking and its harmful health effects.
Attorneys for Philip Morris told Kaye that the company did not break the order with Tuesday's launch of the Web site, which generated a front-page story in The New York Times and a show on ABC's "Nightline."
"It's an effort of Philip Morris to more effectively and more openly communicate with the American public about issues relating to Philip Morris Tobacco," lawyer Dan Webb said. "It has nothing to do with this case whatsoever."
Webb said he expected Rosenblatt "to be applauding Philip Morris," a remark that angered the plaintiffs' attorney.
"When a company admits they make a product which is addictive and kills people and then goes out with the objective to sell as much of this product as they possibly can, that's hardly reason to applaud," Rosenblatt said. "It's a reason for shame. You don't deserve any applause."
A University of Miami law professor said Rosenblatt had every reason to be suspicious of Philip Morris' new Internet site (http://www.philipmorris.com)
"The big money here is punitive damages," said Clark Freshman, an associate professor at the UM School of Law. "If they admit liability now in a big way, they don't look like they're hiding anything. The jury is supposed to look at fraud in the past instead of fraud now. It's wildly effective to do what they've done, and it will affect the jury if the jurors find out about it."
But does the Web site violate the gag order? "Probably not, because the gag order just said, don't talk about the trial," Freshman said.
It also is unlikely the judge would shut down the tobacco company's Internet site, primarily because of First Amendment rights.
"I'll think about it," Kaye said. "But shutting down somebody's Web site is really hard."
Congress has twice passed laws restricting children's access to pornography on the Internet. The Supreme Court struck down one law, and the Justice Department has appealed a federal judge's blocking enforcement of another law.