US tobacco firms lose bid to oust Florida judge
WASHINGTON, May 22 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court rejected on Monday an appeal by cigarette makers seeking to remove the trial judge who has presided over the massive, landmark sick-smokers case in Florida.
The high court, without comment or dissent, turned down the latest effort by tobacco companies to disqualify Judge Robert Kaye of Miami-Dade County Circuit Court, who has presided over the case on behalf of as many as 850,000 sick smokers.
Tobacco industry lawyers claimed Kaye was a former smoker with ailments like those suffered by some of the plaintiffs, and could not be unbiased because he might benefit from any cash damages awarded in the lawsuit.
But lawyers for the plaintiffs replied that the tobacco companies based their claim that Kaye was an injured, former smoker on ``innuendo, rumour and gossip,'' and that there was no evidence the judge had issued biased rulings.
Kaye, who has declined comment on whether he was a former smoker, rejected the request that he remove himself from the case, dismissing the arguments by the tobacco companies as ``legally insufficient.''
A Florida appeals court also rejected the request that he be taken off the case.
Kaye oversaw a year-long trial which last year yielded a sweeping verdict of liability and fraud against the cigarette makers.
In April, a jury ruled the cigarette makers injured three sick smokers and awarded them a total of $12.7 million in compensatory damages, setting the stage for a potentially massive punitive damages award.
In appealing to the Supreme Court, lawyers for Philip Morris Cos. Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., Loews Corp's, Lorillard Tobacco Co. Inc. and two tobacco industry groups said the stakes in the case were ``immense.''
They said the plaintiffs in the first smokers' class-action case ever permitted to go to trial seek compensatory and punitive damages exceeding $200 billion.
The tobacco firms ``find themselves defending a high-stakes, hard-fought class-action lawsuit before a judge who is a member of the certified plaintiff class,'' they said. Lawyers for the plaintiffs disputed that Kaye was part of the class.
The tobacco lawyers said Kaye was hospitalized in 1999 with chest pains and underwent an angioplasty for a blocked artery.
They said the Supreme Court should agree to review the case in ``the interests of justice'' and ``to maintain public faith in the legal system.''
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce business group supported the appeal, saying Kaye's failure to step aside conflicts with fundamental constitutional principles of due process.
But lawyers for the plaintiffs urged the Supreme Court to deny the appeal.
They said the only evidence that Kaye may have been a former smoker was from ``innuendo, rumour and gossip'' contained in news articles.
They said the appeal was based on the erroneous assumption that Kaye was a member of the class of injured smokers. ``Stripped of its false premise, the (appeal) has no merit,'' they said.