Lawyer: Lift Tobacco Gag Order
MIAMI (AP) - A Florida judge should lift a gag order keeping the tobacco industry from talking about a damage verdict expected soon in a landmark lawsuit by smokers, a First Amendment expert argued Wednesday.
First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams told a three-judge state appeals court panel that the judge hearing the case has been ``terrorizing'' when it comes to allowing the parties to comment on the case outside of court.
The appeals panel didn't rule immediately but appeared unreceptive to the industry's arguments. Given the industry's Web sites, advertising and promotions, ``It seems a little bit disingenuous for you all to say you can't get your message out,'' Judge Robert Shevin said.
An estimated 500,000 sick Florida smokers are seeking $200 billion in damages. The jury already has decided the industry conspired to produce a defective product and will be asked within weeks to decide compensatory damages for three smokers.
The industry is challenging a gag order imposed on lawyers on both sides before testimony began in 1998. The industry fears that with the possibility of a record verdict, stock prices of tobacco companies could plummet if they don't have a chance to give their perspective.
Abrams said he hoped the appeals court would give tobacco companies guidance on how they could comment on the jury decision.
Circuit Judge Robert Kaye, who is hearing the trial, ``has been from a First Amendment perspective terrorizing,'' Abrams argued. ``What's been made clear is every statement they make is at their peril.''
Smokers' attorney Stanley Rosenblatt warned that if the gag order is lifted or modified, ``There will be an enormous amount of room for mischief and misleading.''
The trial is to resume Thursday with the industry presenting its defense. The defendants are: R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Philip Morris Inc., Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., Lorillard Tobacco Co., Liggett Group Inc., the Council for Tobacco Research and the Tobacco Institute.