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California and the West

5 Tobacco Lawsuits to Consolidate Common Allegations for State Trial

Court: Plaintiffs and cigarette companies agree on the action. Order will magnify California case.

July 21, 1998|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Five major California lawsuits seeking billions in damages against the tobacco industry will be consolidated for trial--perhaps beginning in February, a Superior Court judge here ruled Monday.

Judge Ronald S. Prager issued the order after a brief hearing, saying that all the cases--including one filed by California Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, another by his gubernatorial rival Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, and yet another by Los Angeles County--involve numerous common allegations and legal issues. In a rare point of agreement, both the plaintiffs and the cigarette companies had previously said that consolidation made sense.

Prager's order is likely to increase the importance of the California cases among the many lawsuits facing the tobacco industry nationwide. Until now, the cases have been little watched.

The stakes are substantial in the five pending cases. As in other states, the plaintiffs--the state, three California cities and 15 counties--are seeking reimbursement for the tobacco-related health costs imposed on state programs such as Medi-Cal. In addition, the state and local officials are seeking rulings that tobacco companies conspired to hide the hazards of smoking and suppressed the development of a safer cigarette.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 23, 1998 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Tobacco lawsuits--A story in The Times on Tuesday about tobacco lawsuits referred to $1.5 million paid by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. as part of the settlement of a case involving its advertising. The money was paid to the city of Los Angeles, not Los Angeles County.

Only one major suit against the industry has been resolved in California and that case, which ended in a settlement two years ago, had a big impact. That time, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. agreed to settle a suit that contended that the company's "Joe Camel" marketing campaign had violated state law by illegally targeting minors. The company agreed to pay $10 million, including about $1.5 million to Los Angeles County.

More importantly, RJR, the nation's second-largest cigarette maker, agreed to make public thousands of internal documents. When the papers were released last year, members of Congress said they provided clear evidence that the company had tried to lure teenagers into consuming addictive products.

Monday's action comes as representatives of many of the 36 states who have sued the tobacco industry are negotiating with the cigarette companies to settle those cases en masse. The negotiations, which include representatives from Lungren's office, began in earnest in June after the U.S. Senate killed major tobacco legislation that would have resolved the state cases, raised the price of cigarettes by $1.10 a pack and severely restricted industry marketing practices.

The bill that died, sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), grew out of a proposed $368.5-billion national settlement the industry reached with state attorneys general and private lawyers in June 1997. But the proposed legislation was much harsher on the industry than the proposed settlement had been.

Much narrower legislation has been introduced by the House Republican leadership. But the bill is given scant chance of passage, so the focus of anti-tobacco efforts has returned to the nation's courtrooms. Several states, including Washington, Arizona, Oklahoma and Massachusetts, have trials against the industry scheduled to begin in several months, with Washington's being first in mid-September.

In the past year, the industry has settled cases filed by Mississippi, Florida, Texas and Minnesota for a total of $39.1 billion. Prior to last summer, the industry had never paid damages in 40 years of litigation. But the cigarette companies decided to settle the state cases for sums previously unheard of in an attempt to avoid an adverse verdict while legislation was pending in Congress.

Now that the McCain bill has been scuttled and the tobacco manufacturers continue a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign against cigarette tax hikes, it is unclear whether they will risk a trial against any of the states.

Attorneys for both sides are actively preparing for trial in Washington. But after the hearing Monday, Tracey Buck-Walsh, a special assistant attorney general in Lungren's office, said negotiations would resume soon.

The oldest of the five California cases, an industry conspiracy to suppress information about the dangers of smoking, was filed in 1992 by former San Diego schoolteacher Julia Cordova on behalf of all California residents. In June 1996, San Francisco became the first city in the nation to sue the industry. Since then, 17 cities and counties and four health organizations--the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Assn., the American Academy of Pediatrics and the California Medical Assn., have joined the suit.

In July 1996, James Ellis, an Orange County resident who contracted cancer after years of smoking, sued the industry, alleging deceptive business practices. In 1997, Davis joined the suit, which seeks to reimburse the state for an estimated $500 million to $700 million in yearly expenses for treating sick smokers.

Los Angeles County joined the fray in August 1996, seeking recompense for an estimated $400 million the county spends annually to treat sick smokers.

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