Lawyers say Philip Morris making Internet move on jurors
A new Philip Morris website in which the giant cigarette maker acknowledges for the first time that smoking causes diseases was a backdoor maneuver to sway jurors in a high stakes class-action suit, anti-tobacco lawyers said on Thursday.
The website publication reversed decades of Philip Morris opposition to a scientific consensus that cigarette smoking was harmful to millions and was depicted by health activists and politicians as a sea change by a beleaguered corporate titan.
Some activists denounced the website as a political and legal trick by an outlaw industry and said the acknowledgment of smoking's health risks was too little and too late.
Philip Morris and other tobacco companies have hotly contested claims in courtrooms, including one in Miami where a class-action case is progressing, that cigarettes were dangerous and addictive.
In that Miami lawsuit on behalf of as many as one million sick or dead smokers throughout Florida, jurors are scheduled to begin on November 1 the penalty-phase of a trial that began last year.
The jurors, who on July 7 found Philip Morris and other top U.S. cigarette makers liable for lung cancer and other ailments among the smokers, could assess compensatory and punitive damages totaling hundreds of billions of dollars.
``Fundamentally, this is an attempt to influence the punitive-damages issues,'' plaintiffs' attorney Stanley Rosenblatt said in a court hearing. ``Their website is essentially a treatise on why they should not be punished.''
Rosenblatt said the website violated a gag order put on both sides by the trial judge last year, when testimony began in the landmark Engle case, named after a pediatrician with emphysema.
The gag order forbids both sides from talking to reporters and was meant to shelter jurors, now having served for more than a year, from news stories and advertising that might affect their decisions.
Dan Webb, attorney for Philip Morris, denied the website broke the gag order and said it was part of a broader, $100 million image campaign on behalf of the tobacco, food and beverage company, he said.
Television advertising detailing Philip Morris' charitable work and public appearances by company executives were also part of the campaign, Webb said.
``The October 13 campaign start was set in stone a long time ago,'' Webb said.
Trial Judge Robert Kaye of Miami-Dade County Circuit Court did not rule on whether or not the website added up to a violation of the gag order but said the issues addressed on the Internet were key to the case.
``You are putting out information that the jurors should only be getting inside the courtroom,'' Kaye told Webb.
Each juror would be questioned about the website on November 1, the scheduled start date of the punitive phase, the judge said. He did not rule on request by the Rosenblatts that they be allowed to publish their own website to counter the Philip Morris one.
Next Wednesday, a panel of appeals judges is scheduled to hear arguments that may limit the scope of the second phase. Kaye has ruled that punitive damages could be assessed for all members of the class in the second phase.
But the appeals judges will consider a tobacco industry request that each individual claim be fixed in separate trials, a long, cumbersome process some experts have said could go on for decades.