Tobacco Suit Jury Selection Begins
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Jury selection began Monday in a statewide class-action lawsuit against the nation's tobacco companies, seeking to force cigarette makers to pay for medical testing and to help smokers in Louisiana quit.
The suit, filed in 1997, claims that tobacco companies manipulated nicotine levels to keep people addicted.
Unlike more high-profile tobacco trials, such as in Florida where the industry was hit by a $145 billion judgment in July 2000 and a $3 billion award by a Los Angeles jury on June 6 to a cancer-stricken smoker, an eye-popping punitive damage award does not appear possible because of state caps on such damages.
Jury selection could take up to two months and the trial could take a year, said Christine Cox, a spokeswoman for a national group of attorneys handling suits against the tobacco industry.
The suit will be held by Civil District Judge Richard Ganucheau in two phases.
The first will cover whether nicotine in cigarettes caused two women listed as class representatives, Gloria Scott and Deanna Jackson, to continue smoking, and whether cigarettes are defective products under state liability law. That phase also will address whether quit-smoking programs and medical monitoring are justified for the two women.
The same jury then will decide whether the entire class, which could include 500,000 or more Louisiana smokers, is entitled to similar benefits and how to award common damages.
The tobacco industry contends that addiction is a person-by-person issue that should be decided in individual trials.
Neither side has released estimates of how much tobacco companies would have to pay should the plaintiffs get everything they want.
In the late 1990s, the tobacco industry agreed to pay $248 billion over 25 years to settle state lawsuits seeking to recover their costs of treating smoking-related illnesses. Louisiana's share was $4 billion.
The Legislature recently authorized the sale of up to $2.4 billion of the settlement, as some officials fear the industry may eventually not be able to pay.