U.S. Judge Vows to Keep Massive Tobacco Case Moving
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Despite vowing to keep the U.S. Justice Department's massive lawsuit against the tobacco industry moving forward, a federal judge said on Friday that it still may be three years before the case goes to trial.
U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler acknowledged the historic lawsuit, which accuses the tobacco industry of fraud and deceit since the 1950s, may never get to trial if a settlement can be reached or if she ended up dismissing the case.
In the first hearing since the suit was filed two months ago to recover much of the $20 billion spent by the federal government each year on smoking-related illnesses, Kessler said her goal would be to ``keep this case on track and move it forward toward a final resolution.''
She sternly warned lawyers for the tobacco industry and the Justice Department that the massive nature of the case should not serve as an excuse for delay, inattention or ''lollygaging.''
No matter whether the case ends up at trial, being dismissed or in a settlement, Kessler promised to ``keep it moving.''
The lawsuit seeks to recover the billions of dollars incurred by the government on health and other federal programs to treat people with smoking-related illnesses, and seeks to force the companies to give up their ``ill-gotten'' profits.
The suit named Philip Morris Inc.; Philip Morris Companies Inc.; R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.; American Tobacco Co.; Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp.; British-American Tobacco P.L.C.; British-American Tobacco (Investments) Ltd.; Lorillard Tobacco Co. Inc.; Liggett and Myers Inc.; The Council for Tobacco Research U.S.A. Inc.; and the Tobacco Institute Inc.
Kessler began the hearing by saying the case will ''profoundly affect the American public and the tobacco industry.''
She gave tobacco industry attorneys until December 27 to file motions to dismiss the case before trial. The Justice Department will have until February 25 to respond, and oral arguments will be held on the motions on April 24.
Attorney Robert Weber, representing R.J. Reynolds, said the motions to dismiss would raise ``important'' issues that will be ''a milestone in this case.'' He did not elaborate.
Kessler estimated when a trial might occur if the lawsuit was not dismissed.
``If this case is going to go to trial -- and that is a big if; we all know that -- ... I think that with a lot of work we are looking at January of 2003,'' she said.
``It is a long way down the road,'' Kessler added. ``If it is going to go to trial, that is the time frame I am hoping to meet.''
The judge said she would appoint a neutral outside lawyer to assist both sides and help resolve any differences in the gathering of evidence. She said she would like to have a fairly complete plan ready for the gathering of evidence by March.