Tobacco Cos. Set to Face Trial of South Carolina Smoking Suit
Charleston, South Carolina, Jan. 5 (Bloomberg) -- R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings Inc. and Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. are preparing to defend claims in a Charlestown courtroom Monday that their cigarettes caused a long-time smoker's fatal illness.
The case, brought by the family of Samuel M. Little in federal court in Charleston, South Carolina, is part of a recent wave of lawsuits seeking to hold tobacco companies liable for smokers' illnesses and deaths. Little, who started smoking in 1961, died of lung cancer in 1999.
Tobacco companies have won the vast majority of individual smokers' lawsuits, including a victory last June when New York state court jurors refused to hold them responsible for a smoker's lung cancer. The only blemishes on the industry's record in individual cases are three losses on the West Coast in the past two years and a $200,000 jury award to the family of a dead smoker in Florida in October. That award later was thrown out and the other three are on appeal.
Such individual smoker suits are a ``cost of doing business'' for tobacco companies, said Bonnie Herzog, an analyst with Credit Suisse First Boston who follows the tobacco industry.
Herzog said the South Carolina case isn't a big concern for tobacco industry watchers, given the fact that it's being tried in a conservative, tobacco-producing state. The jury pool in Charleston, home to a U.S. Air Force base, also is likely to be loaded with military retirees.
``There are pockets of the country where it's easier (for the tobacco companies) to win,'' Herzog noted. ``South Carolina is one of those.''
The bigger threat looming over the industry is a $145 billion damage award to Florida smokers in a class-action suit, analysts said. The so-called Engle case was the first class action over smoking-related illnesses to go to trial, and tobacco companies have vowed to appeal the verdict.
Cigarette makers sought to put their legal woes behind them by agreeing to pay state governments $246 billion to settle smoking-related health claims in 1998. But the national settlement didn't bar smokers from bringing their own lawsuits.
Charleston attorney Ronald Motley -- who helped negotiate the national settlement -- represents Little's family in the tobacco case. Motley is a veteran of two decades of asbestos litigation.
Officials of Motley's firm, Ness, Motley, Loadholt, Richardson & Poole, said last week, however, that the case will be tried by Charles Patrick and Jerry Evans, two of Motley's colleagues.
R.J. Reynolds is represented in the case by Stephanie E. Parker and John F. Yarber of the Atlanta office of Cleveland's Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue, while Brown & Williamson is represented by William E. Hoffmann Jr. and W. Randall Bassett of Atlanta's King & Spalding, according to court papers.
Smoked Winston and Carlton
Little, a manager at a local tire distributor, smoked R.J. Reynolds' Winston-brand cigarettes from 1961 to 1970 before switching to the Carlton brand, his lawyers said. Brown & Williamson, a unit of British American Tobacco Plc, now owns the Carlton line of cigarettes.
In 1995, Little was diagnosed with lung cancer, his lawyers said in court papers. He died four years later -- the day after his 54th birthday.
Little's family contends that cigarette makers knew as early as the 1950s that their products were addictive and caused cancer, but misled consumers about the risks of smoking. They are seeking compensatory and punitive damages from the companies, according to court papers.
R.J. Reynolds officials counter that their cigarettes aren't defective or ``unreasonably dangerous,'' and that consumers have been hit with a barrage of information about smoking's health risks since the 1940s, according to court papers.
Little's family can't show that Reynolds officials had a legal duty to warn him of ``the obvious and commonly known dangers of smoking,'' the company's lawyers said in court papers.
U.S. District Judge Patrick Michael Duffy will preside over the Little family's lawsuit. The case is expected to take as long as eight weeks, plaintiffs lawyers say.
Earlier this week, another federal judge in South Carolina rebuffed a bid by a group of smokers to join their claims in a class-action lawsuit in the northwest part of the state.
Judge Margaret Seymour concluded tobacco liability claims are too diverse to consolidate in a single case. A federal judge in Pennsylvania came to the same conclusion last week.
Meanwhile, cigarette makers also are defending themselves in the trial of a class-action suit filed by West Virginia smokers who are seeking to have the companies pay for future medical checkups. That trial started yesterday.
Shares of Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based R.J. Reynolds rose $2.25 to $47.94 on the New York Stock Exchange. American depositary receipts for London-based British American Tobacco rose 38 cents to $14.69 on the same exchange.