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Taking On Tobacco : Even After a Wave of Legal Setbacks, Marc Edell Wasn't About to Let Landmark Case Go Up in Smoke

June 20, 1988|MYRON LEVIN | Times Staff Writer

NEWARK, N.J. — Marc Z. Edell was subdued, almost brooding.

A federal court jury had just delivered the first verdict ever against a tobacco company in a smoker-death case, ordering Liggett Group Inc. to pay damages for the 1984 death of a New Jersey woman. And as lead trial lawyer for the plaintiff, the 37-year-old Edell had just been assured a place in legal history in a landmark case.

In legal terms, Edell's team had climbed Mt. Everest, conquering an industry that had been flicking away damage suits for more than 30 years. But to Edell, the view from the top was not altogether satisfying.

"I'm happy and I'm not happy," he told a crush of reporters. "I'm disappointed we didn't get the whole thing."

Although it found Liggett liable, the jury exonerated Philip Morris and Lorillard, whose brands Rose Cipollone also smoked before dying of lung cancer at age 58. Jurors also rejected the most damning claims of fraud and conspiracy against all three firms.

Other Side Claims Victory

Then too the law firms that had bankrolled the suit--those of Edell and co-counsel Alan Darnell--had taken a bath, investing at least $2 million in expenses and time for a $400,000 damage award. The cigarette makers were telling the world they'd won.

When asked by a reporter why he seemed so glum, Edell blurted an apology.

"It's just my personality," he said. "I think that if I work hard enough, that I could get it done."

That compulsiveness, say co-workers and friends, explains a lot about how the Cipollone case came to be--and how it succeeded, where all others had failed, despite legal setbacks that robbed Edell of the theoretical underpinnings of his case.

Battling the well-financed, politically influential tobacco companies on behalf of a New Jersey widower was the kind of uphill battle Edell relishes. Anyone with less drive and street smarts might have given up.

"He's extraordinarily demanding, but there's nothing he asks you to do that he doesn't do himself," said Michele Brown, Edell's paralegal, who admits it's "not easy to work with the guy."

"He engenders strong feelings, one way or the other," she said. "You either hate him or you go to the ends of the Earth to stand by him all the way."

Steven Parrish, a lawyer for Lorillard from Kansas City, said Edell "tried a very good lawsuit against us."

"(Edell and) I have had some very strong disagreements over the last five years and some very heated exchanges . . . but we basically have left that at a professional level," Parrish said. "I consider him to be my friend."

And Cynthia Walters, a lawyer on the Cipollone team, said Edell is "aggressive, he's shrewd, he's very intelligent, and he's energized. He has all the capabilities of a great trial lawyer all wrapped up into one package."

Two days after the verdict, Edell had been on "Nightline," "Good Morning America" and "Today" and had been lionized in newspapers coast to coast as the David who slew Goliath.

The sudden celebrity was "flattering, but I don't take it too seriously," said Edell, who had shed his conservative gray suit for fatigue-green slacks and a shirt without a tie.

"It's because Marc was in the right place at the right time with the right stuff," Edell said. "Tomorrow, no one will remember who I am."

Still, Edell seemed a bit more impressed with himself.

The tobacco companies "spend $50 million, and they get legislation passed and take away all my legal theories, and we get a judgment against them for $400,000, and they still proclaim that it's a victory?" he scoffed. "Give me a break!"

Rose Cipollone's was a familiar story. She was 16, and awed by the glamour of cigarette-smoking movie idols when she began buying Chesterfields at the corner sweet shop in 1942. She hired Marc Edell in 1983, when she lost her right lung to cancer. The disease invaded her liver and brain and she died the next year, after making her husband, Antonio, vow to carry on the suit.

To Edell, Rose Cipollone was a victim of chemical dependence, a person who had a right to be told in the 1940s what she was getting into with cigarettes.

For Edell, his wife and three children, the case would involve considerable personal sacrifice, as he gave it his heart and mind and most of his waking hours. For nearly a year before the trial began Feb. 1, Edell worked seven days a week.

Still, he was not an anti-smoking activist, nor a crusader of any stripe. He thought tobacco litigation was warranted and "would be challenging."

"And," he added, "I thought I could make some money."

Ironically, Edell had defended an asbestos producer, Lake Asbestos of Quebec, Ltd., in scores of lawsuits brought on behalf of dead or dying workers who had been exposed to the cancer-causing fibers. Those cases prepared him for the document-discovery battles that would prove pivotal in the Cipollone case.

In the Cipollone case and six other cigarette suits yet to reach trial, Edell and his Short Hills, N.J., law firm were joined by Alan Darnell and his firm in Woodbridge, N.J.

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