New York The tobacco industry went on trial Monday, with a trust representing asbestos workers demanding billions in damages for a wave of death and disease allegedly caused by a combination of asbestos and cigarettes.
"It really boils down to a simple phrase: Pay your fair share," trust attorney Ed Westbrook told the jury at the opening of the high-stakes trial in federal court in Brooklyn.
The defense countered by accusing the trust of trying to shift blame and costly liabilities from a bankrupt asbestos manufacturer to cigarette makers. The asbestos manufacturer not the tobacco industry had a history of deceiving workers about health risks, said Thomas Schroeder, an attorney for R.J. Reynolds.
The trial, expected to last two months, has become the latest battleground for Big Tobacco and those who say it conspired to conceal the dangers of smoking.
It pits a trust made up of blue-collar workers, many of them lung cancer victims, and their heirs against R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris and other tobacco giants.
Westbrook accused the tobacco industry of engaging in a decades-long conspiracy to hide and distort scientific findings that asbestos workers who smoked were five times more likely to get lung disease than the average smoker.
The evidence, the lawyer said, includes an internal Philip Morris document detailing a 1968 meeting in which company researchers acknowledged that cigarettes posed a higher risk to asbestos workers.
Despite that, the companies "did nothing," Westbrook said. "They sat silent for decades."
The trust formed in 1987 after the nation's largest asbestos maker, Johns-Manville Corp., went bankrupt amid an avalanche of lawsuits has so far paid more than $1 billion in claims to sick workers, Westbrook said. Many of those workers were exposed to the "lethal synergy" of tobacco and asbestos, he said.