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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Where There's Smoke, There's a Lawsuit to File

March 29, 2000|MIKE DOWNEY

I can't wait to sue tobacco. Can't wait. It's so easy, a child could do it. The only hard part is how long the line is going to be. You'll have to take a number, like in a delicatessen or a frozen yogurt shop.

Let's see: You can sue and win if you smoked cigarettes before the surgeon general's warning came on all the packs. Or, you can sue and win if you smoked cigarettes after the surgeon general's warning. Cool.

These people make us sick. Now it's our turn to make them sick. We've got these pack rats coming and going. We've got 'em if we do smoke. We've got 'em if we don't smoke. We can sue even if we just accidentally breathe in somebody else's smoke. Suing the tobacco industry feels good, like suing an industry should.

And here I mistakenly have been thinking all this time that if a company warns you not to use its product, that it is deadly, that you are literally playing with fire, that millions of innocent lab mice exposed to burning tobacco have died so that more of us may live, then we obviously couldn't sue and win. Oh, how wrong I have been. We can sue, even if we ignore every warning. We've come a long way in lawsuits, baby.

So, come on, let's litigate. Let's sue while the suing's good. We've got tobacco by the short leaves. Just get in line, turn your head and cough. You can teach those tobacco pushers a lesson. How naive they are, expecting you to quit smoking . . . just because they warn you to quit smoking.

*

Did you read about the latest case? A jury just awarded $21.7 million to a 40-year-old California woman who has--naturally--cancer. Her condition is no laughing matter. She is a mother of four. She smoked and she shouldn't have.

And whose fault was that? Why, it's tobacco's fault--who else? This bulletin just in: The tobacco industry makes tobacco. Tobacco can make you sick. How do I know? Well, mainly because I can read English. Because it says so on every pack. Take a tip from me: Read the pack. A warning works so much better if you actually read it.

If this woman hadn't used that product, maybe she wouldn't be so sick. But did the jury blame her for smoking cigarettes? Of course it didn't. It blamed the people who made the smokes, the people who warned her that smoking could make her sick.

The woman and her husband last week were awarded $1.72 million in compensatory damages. And then the jury came in Monday with $20 million more in punitive damages. It didn't matter that the woman disregarded a printed warning for the entire time she smoked. Tobacco made her sick. End of story.

A reporter was told later that at least one juror wanted to make it a billion dollars--billion, with a B.

For disobeying a warning.

That's when I knew you could sue. That you could use a product that is manufactured and sold legally, a product that you really shouldn't be using because it isn't good for you, and you could win because a jury wouldn't hold you responsible.

You could sue beer. Beer can be hazardous to your health. Beer can contribute to alcoholism. Beer can contribute to accidents. Beer can affect your liver, and you really should take care of your liver. Therefore, don't drink beer if you wish to remain in perfect health, but remember, if it harms you, just sue the company that made your beer. After all, you wouldn't have drunk it if those people hadn't made it.

You could sue wine. Ditto.

You could sue matchbooks. Many matchbooks warn you to close the cover before striking. But suppose you don't close the cover. Is that your fault? Those matchbook-makers have a lot of nerve, expecting you to understand such complicated instructions.

You could sue glue. The glue's supposed to hold objects together, not go up your nose. But suppose you sniff it. Suppose you freak out. Suppose you almost die. Who's fault is that--yours? Sue the glue!

*

Jurors will be sympathetic. In this week's case, for example, after the Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds companies were found liable for $21.72 million worth of negligence and fraud, one fellow said of his fellow jurors that some "wanted a much higher amount . . . they wanted to shut down Big Tobacco."

I guess they were hoping to, you know, send a message.

But there's another message they could have just as easily sent instead:

We, the jury, find that the woman who smoked cigarettes after she was warned to stop smoking cigarettes should have just stopped smoking cigarettes.

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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