Landmark cigarette trial draws to a close
MIAMI -- In the two years since the beginning of a landmark smokers` trial, one of the lead plaintiffs died, along with an estimated 670,000 other Americans suffering from smoking-related disease.
The nation`s five biggest cigarette makers have greatly expanded the value of state lawsuit settlements from $37 billion to $254 billion, but there has been no admission of wrongdoing by the industry.
"Not one of these CEOs has come in here and said: `We`ve committed fraud. We`ve misrepresented. We`ve lied. We`ve concealed. We`ve been part of a decades-long disgusting conspiracy, but we`re not that way any more,` " said smokers` attorney Stanley Rosenblatt, before both sides rested Friday.
Closing arguments are set to begin July 10. By midmonth, trial observers think, the six-member jury will make history by breaking the $4.8 billion national record for punitive damages set against General Motors last year.
"There`s a tremendous amount at stake," said lead tobacco attorney Dan Webb. "It`s the largest claim in American history for an amount of money, and I`m not trying to overstate it, but these companies have their survival at stake."
Smokers` witnesses have said the companies can afford to pay $150 billion to $157 billion, and the lawsuit lists a $200 billion figure, but Rosenblatt hasn`t specified any amount for the jury to consider.
Industry testimony puts the net worth of the five companies at $15.4 billion, and state law bars an award that would put them out of business.
The tobacco industry wants to pay nothing more than its settlement commitment.
But Circuit Judge Robert Kaye ruled that was voluntary and could not be characterized as punishment -- the purpose of punitive damages.
During trial, settlements covering all 50 states "led to a substantial rise in cigarette prices throughout the United States and massive changes to the way the industry conducts itself," said Martin Feldman, tobacco analyst with Salomon Smith Barney.
Cigarette makers have taken down billboards and started youth anti-smoking programs. They either admit smoking causes disease or, if they don`t, they cite the position of public-health authorities on tobacco and health-related problems.
The industry won a U.S. Supreme Court fight against the regulation of nicotine as a drug. But Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. lost the first case of a smoker who started after warning labels went on cigarette packs in 1966. A San Francisco jury ordered the companies to pay $20 million to a 40-year-old smoker with lung cancer.
In the Florida smokers` case, a Miami jury decided last July that the industry makes a deadly, defective product. One of the plaintiffs, Angie Della Vecchia, who started smoking at age 11, died after the verdict when lung cancer spread to her brain.
Her husband, Ralph, took her place in court when the same panel awarded $12.7 million in compensatory damages to him, Mary Farnan and Frank Amodeo. The three represented 300,000 to 700,000 people covered by the first smokers` class-action lawsuit to get to trial.
Anti-tobacco activist John Banzhaf, a George Washington University law professor, thinks the jury will reject the industry`s defense that recent changes are sufficient to avoid punishment.
"For 30 years we killed hundreds of thousands of people every year. But by golly now we`ve reformed, and we shouldn`t be punished for it," he said, putting a sarcastic spin on tobacco`s position. "If I were a juror, I would be outraged."