Jury Weighs Damages in Smoker Case
MIAMI (AP) - A federal judge decided to lift a gag order in a landmark tobacco industry trial hours after a state jury began deliberating whether to award damages to three smokers with cancer.
The jury began deliberations Monday on a request for $13.2 million in compensatory damages against the nation's five biggest cigarette makers. The deliberations were to resume today.
The pivotal question on a complicated 18-page verdict form asks whether smoking was the legal cause of cancer in Frank Amodeo, Mary Farnan and the late Angie Della Vecchia.
Besides the compensatory request, the industry fears a $300 billion punitive award for an estimated 500,000 sick Florida smokers. It is the first such case to make it trial.
North Carolina, the nation's No. 1 tobacco producer, passed a law Wednesday to shield the state's cigarette makers from the potentially crippling jury award in the Florida case. The law sets a cap of $25 million on the amount a company has to post as bond while appealing a punitive-damage verdict.
Already, Virginia, Kentucky and Georgia have quickly approved laws limiting the bond cigarette companies would have to post. Virginia and Georgia approved a $25 million limit; Kentucky set it at $100 million.
The news media welcomed the judge's decision allowing attorneys, their companies and smokers in the case to speak publicly for the first time in 18 months, but trial lawyers didn't rush to comment.
In a 20-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan ruled state Circuit Judge Robert Kaye's ``broadly sweeping injunction on speech'' silencing the parties since October 1998 was ``facially unconstitutional.''
He noted the gag order was overbroad and never-ending and saw newsworthiness in ``the unprecedented scope of the plaintiff class (of smokers) and the staggering amount of money at stake.''
Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal, led five publishing companies in challenging the gag order.
Smokers' attorney Susan Rosenblatt declined comment until the issue is raised again with Kaye. A call for comment from lead industry attorney Dan Webb was not returned.
The defendants are Philip Morris Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Brown & Williamson, Lorillard Tobacco Co., Liggett Group Inc. and the industry's Council for Tobacco Research and Tobacco Institute.