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Jury Awards $145 Billion in Landmark Tobacco Case

Record punitive damages in class-action lawsuit in Florida multiplies industry's woes. Yet it remains confident of an appeal.

July 15, 2000|MYRON LEVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — The tobacco industry suffered a crushing loss in a landmark class-action case Friday as jurors, who already had found cigarette makers guilty of conspiracy and fraud, ordered them to pay $144.8 billion in punitive damages to Florida smokers who became sick or died as a result of addiction to cigarette smoking.

The stunning verdict in Dade County Circuit Court was several times larger than any previous damage award granted by a U.S. jury. It was immediately hailed by industry foes as a watershed in tobacco control and attacked by the defendants as a travesty that will not withstand appeals.

"I'm very happy," said plaintiffs lawyer Stanley Rosenblatt, who along with his wife, Susan, filed the case in 1994 and has seen it through a two-year trial that isn't over yet.

"Justice," said Frank Amodeo, a throat cancer victim and one of the plaintiffs. "After all these years and so many sick people, justice."

But tobacco lawyers predicted the verdict will have no practical effect, saying the damages won't be payable for decades until mini-trials for the hundreds of thousands of class-action members determine who is entitled to a share. Moreover, they said, the entire case is likely to be thrown out on appeal.

Florida law bars damage awards that could bankrupt a business, and Judge Robert P. Kaye could decide to trim the verdict prior to any appeals.

Dan Webb, an attorney for industry leader Philip Morris Cos. Inc., whose punishment was set at $74 billion, said he was disappointed but not surprised by the verdict.

"The deck was truly stacked against us," Webb said. "The fact that the judge allowed a jury to award such an enormous amount of punitive damages to hundreds of thousands of unidentified . . . smokers, without hearing any evidence whatsoever about the validity of their claims, has never happened before in American history and undoubtedly never will happen again."

The six-member jury ordered damage payments of $36.3 billion by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.; $17.6 billion by Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., $16.3 billion by Lorillard Tobacco Co. and $790 million by Liggett Group Inc., an apportionment that largely reflects market share. Damage awards totaling nearly $1.5 million were entered against two defunct industry organizations: the Tobacco Institute and the Council for Tobacco Research.

"This is a jury who wanted to send a message to these guys," said Matt Myers, head of the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids. "The verdict is a clear-cut statement that the jury didn't buy the industry's line that they have changed."

Jurors Took Less Than Five Hours to Decide

But Stephen Gillers, a New York University law professor, called it "inexplicable" and "unacceptable . . . that a six-person state court jury should be able to make a decision that has such a profound impact on the American economy."

While stating that he favors the use of tort law to punish corporate misconduct, he said the "damages caused by Big Tobacco would be better addressed" by Congress.

The jurors were an assistant principal, a bank teller, a welder, a telephone technician, a postal worker and a head custodian for a public school, according to information provided by the court. Among them were one current smoker and one former smoker, and they range in age from 28 to 49. Four were men and two were women; four were African American, one Latino and one white.

They deliberated less than five hours to reach a verdict and win release from nearly two years of bondage in a case that featured 157 witnesses, thousands of exhibits and more than 55,000 pages of transcript.

Known as the Engle case, the first class-action smokers' lawsuit ever to come to trial took the name of lead plaintiff Howard Engle, a retired physician who suffers from emphysema.

In their initial verdict in the case last July, jurors ruled that smoking was a cause of 20 different diseases and found that cigarette makers had committed fraud by lying for decades about the risks and addictiveness of smoking.

Then in April, the jury found the industry liable for the cancers of three class representatives, including Amodeo, awarding them compensatory damages totaling $12.7 million and triggering the latest phase, in which the panel had to rule on a lump sum of punitive damages for the entire class, which may number as many as 700,000.

"The truth is out there now," said Mary Farnan, another of the class representatives, after the Friday verdict. Farnan, who blames the tobacco industry for the cancer that spread from her lungs to her brain, called it "the worst disease in the world. And I can tell you that three times over."

Rosenblatt praised the jurors after the verdict as "six thoughtful, courageous Americans" who "did the right thing."

But they did not stick around to discuss their decision, after Kaye urged them not to talk to the press. "What you've done here is your own private business," Kaye said.

'It's Up to the Judical System,' Foreman Says

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