Tobacco lawyers turn on each other as threat of huge verdict looms
The level of invective in a Miami-Dade Circuit Court continued to grow on Tuesday, with lawyers for the five tobacco companies on trial breaking ranks and turning on each other as jurors and a full courtroom watched.
A lawyer for R.J. Reynolds, the world's second largest tobacco company, told jurors the cigarette maker is already taking a financial beating from settlements it has reached with attorney generals around the country, including Florida's. Under a settlement agreement with Florida, the tobacco giants agreed to pay the state more than $13 billion throughout the next 25 years.
And now, in a statewide class-action case against the industry, jurors are being asked to decide how much the tobacco companies should pay the 300,000 to 500,000 sick Florida smokers who are plaintiffs in the case. Jurors already said the tobacco industry manufactures a dangerous product and conspired to hide health risks.
"The purpose (of the punitive award) is to punish and deter," said Jim Johnson, a lawyer for R.J. Reynolds.
"It's not to destroy (a company) or bankrupt or penalize it for legal conduct like selling cigarettes," Johnson said. "Profits are already being squeezed by the attorney general settlement."
A lawyer for Lorillard Tobacco Co., one of the smaller cigarette makers in the country, told the jury that company was a leader in industry reform. CEO Martin Orlowsky will testify that cigarettes cause disease, said Ken Riley, the company's lawyer. And using the company's small size as a defense, Riley pointed out that "better than 90 percent of the plaintiffs didn't develop addiction or disease because of Lorillard cigarettes."
In a deposition on May 10, Michael Szymanczyk, CEO of industry-leading Philip Morris Inc., said the company has not adopted the position of public health officials that smoking causes cancer and is addictive even though it displays those messages on its Web site.
The lawyer for Liggett Group, the smallest of the companies on trial, pointed out that it was the firm's CEO, Bennett LeBow, motivated by the negative public perception of cigarette makers, who became the first industry executive to sit down with state attorney generals to discuss issues including advertising and accountability.
LeBow testified in this trial and others on behalf of the plaintiffs even though his company was a defendant, Aaron Marks, the lawyer, reminded jurors.
And when Marks pointed out that the industry has not paid out one claim or settlement to a sick smoker in more than 40 years and began to talk about letters Liggett sent to smokers, Dan Webb, the lead attorney for Philip Morris, jumped to his feet to object.
It was an unusual moment for a defense attorney to object to another defense attorney who has shared the same side of the courtroom and the case for more than 18 months now. And it prompted several of the class members sitting in the courtroom to turn to each other, smile, and flash a thumbs-up.
All this commotion appeared to remind at least one person of a circus.
Early in the day, Judge Robert Kaye interrupted the tobacco lawyers as they fought his decision not to allow them to play some of their commercials for the jury during opening statements to prove their claim that they have cleaned up methods of marketing their product.
The previous day, Stanley Rosenblatt, the smokers' attorney, showed the jury cigarette advertisements.
"Enough is enough," Kaye told the lawyers. "You're just making a circus out of the whole procedure."
The judge went on to say that he thought he had let the lawyers get out of hand the day before, and that he was trying to correct that mistake on Tuesday.
But throughout the day, he repeatedly had to remind the lawyers they were supposed to be making opening statements and not presenting evidence or arguing points made by the other side.
Finally, exasperated, he told them he felt like he was "in a cage of five lions and two tigers. They're all hungry, and all I've got is a whip."