Wave of secondhand smoke trials to start in Miami
MIAMI, March 18 (Reuters) - Jury picking will begin in Miami on Monday in the first of what may be as many as 3,200 follow-up trials to a secondhand smokers class-action suit that has already cost cigarette makers $349 million.
Some 3,200 people have filed individual claims which should go to trial in coming years as part of the 1997 settlement of the class-action brought by nonsmoking flight attendants claiming injuries from passengers' cigarette smoking.
No plaintiff has yet received any cash, and the so-called Phase II trials will award damages, if any, to each sick flight attendant who filed a personal claim by a 2000 deadline.
The $349 million already paid out by the cigarette makers went to plaintiffs lawyers and to set up a health foundation.
The plaintiffs, including Marie Fontana, the former Trans World Airlines Inc attendant whose trial is scheduled to begin in the Miami Circuit Court next week, claim illnesses such as lung cancer and bronchitis were caused by secondhand smoke aboard U.S. passenger jets. Smoking aboard U.S. domestic flights was banned in the late 1980s.
When Philip Morris Cos Inc the world's No. 1 cigarette maker, and other tobacco companies settled the class-action in October 1997, the industry was then seeking a sweeping pact with Congress to end the broad, still continuing legal assaults against the industry.
Critics of the 1997 Miami settlement, including lawyers for some sick flight attendants, said the deal fell far short of the $5 billion initially sought and gave too much shelter to tobacco defendants in the individual trials.
As part of the settlement, the individual lawsuits cannot claim punitive damages, which are often a multiple of payments for actual injuries and are meant to sting losing defendants for bad behavior.
Stanley and Susan Rosenblatt, the same Miami lawyers who last year scored against the same tobacco companies a $145 billion judgment, the biggest ever, on behalf of sick smokers, have said their secondhand smoke case was floundering and that the deal was all they could salvage.
TRIALS WILL TURN ON MEDICAL HISTORIES
The tobacco companies agreed in settling the class action to hobble their own legal defenses in the Stage II cases.
Among the concessions described by anti-tobacco lawyers as very significant, the cigarette makers agreed not to challenge arguments tying secondhand smoke to lung cancer and many other diseases and to allow the use of videotaped testimony by key plaintiffs' witnesses from the 1997 trial.
The Stage II trials will turn on the particular medical histories and claims of each plaintiff, according to anti-tobacco activist Edward Sweda.
``No one is making it easy, but there should be some victories in there,'' said Sweda, who is also senior attorney at the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University in Boston.
Fontana's lawyer, Steven Hunter, who is also handling 400 other Stage II lawsuits, said the concessions won by the Rosenblatts gave him a big advantage. ``This is like starting at third base,'' he said.
Hunter said 50 year-old non-smoker Fontana required oxygen and suffered from bronchitis caused by secondhand smoke inhaled during many of her 23 years as a TWA flight attendant.
``We will be there on Monday, ready to pick a jury,'' said a spokesman for Philip Morris.
Philip Morris and other defendants in the Phase II cases are also active in Florida appeals courts, where they are challenging trial rules laid down by Senior Judge Robert Kaye.
In particular, lawyers for defendants which include RJ Reynolds Tobacco Holdings Inc.; Brown & Williamson, a unit of British American Tobacco Plc; Lorillard Tobacco Co., owned by Loews Corp. and Liggett, a unit of Vector Group Ltd., want the right to argue in each individual case that the scientific basis for tying illnesses to secondhand smoke is much weaker than for smoking itself.