Penalty phase opens in Florida sick-smokers case
MIAMI, Nov 1 (Reuters) - With hundreds of billions of dollars at stake, lawyers for sick smokers and Big Tobacco returned to court on Monday to determine how stiff a penalty cigarette makers should pay to as many as a million Florida smokers whose illness
Judge Robert Paul Kaye gives the jury instructions during the first day of the damages phase of the landmark Florida tobacco trial Monday, Nov. 1, 1999, in Miami.The attorneys were back in court to start arguing their positions in the penalty phase of the landmark class action case in which a Florida jury this summer ruled that U.S. tobacco companies were liable for ailments ranging from cancer to heart and lung disease among smokers.
That same six-member jury must now put a price tag to its decision, and estimates of the potential punitive and other damages that could be assessed against Philip Morris Cos. Inc. and others run as high as $300 billion to $500 billion.
Wall Street analysts are divided over whether the trial judge would demand immediate payment of any lump-sum damages award or the posting of a massive cash bond if the tobacco companies lose again.
When the nation's five biggest cigarette makers two weeks ago lost an appeal asking that any payouts from the July 7 liability verdict be spread out over decades, tobacco stocks dropped dramatically on investors fears the prosperous industry's leaders could be bankrupted by the Engle class-action, named after a Miami Beach, Fla., doctor with emphysema.
Plaintiffs attorney Stanley Rosenblatt began his opening statement to the jury on Monday by recounting the history of Mary Farnan, one of two sick smokers whose claims will be presented in the first follow-up trial. Farnan, 44, has lung and brain cancer and smoked for some three decades after taking her first cigarette at age 11, Rosenblatt said.
The second ex-smoker, Frank Amodeo, suffers from throat cancer and smoked for nearly 35 years, Rosenblatt said. The two sat silently at the defense table behind a courtroom fence that separated them from dozens of other Engle claimants, some with walkers or wearing gauze patches over their throats.
``We are in a position to be able to describe what these product has done to these specific people,'' he said to the jurors.
Defense lawyers, who had yet to make their opening statements, objected as too cursory the questioning by Trial Judge Robert Kaye of Miami-Dade County Circuit Court of the jurors and alternates about any news coverage of the highly publicized case.
Lawyers for both sides have voiced worries about news reports affecting the jurors, and Kaye a year ago placed a gag order on all parties in what is the anti-tobacco class-action to come to a verdict to safeguard the independence of the jurors in the long series of trials, now well into a second year.
Some alternates told Kaye, when he questioned them before opening statements, that they had heard some reports last July but had paid little attention and did not believe the information would affect their thinking in the case.
``You cannot tell from asking such a general question,'' Philip Morris attorney Dan Webb told Kaye after jurors were released for lunch.
He told Kaye the tobacco companies wanted to question each juror and alternate individually. Kaye, who listened to Webb, as he stood up behind his bench, straightened papers on his desk and moved towards an exit, did not rule on Webb's request.
In the first phase of the Engle lawsuit, in which tobacco companies were found liable for fraud, hiding the dangers of smoking, and the illnesses of 40,000 to 1 million smokers, cigarette makers were barred from using defenses that have proven very successful for decades against sick-smoker lawsuits.
But in the second phase, estimated to last for several weeks to two months, lawyers for cigarette makers will be able to present evidence that the dangers of smoking have been widely known for 30 to 40 years and that smokers made free choices and must bear the consequences.