Miami Jurors in Florida's landmark smokers trial already have placed the blame for hundreds of thousands of ailing smokers on cigarette makers. Now they could punish Big Tobacco like no U.S. jury ever has.
In closing arguments set to start today, smokers' attorney Stanley Rosenblatt is expected to set a figure on the punitive damages he thinks the jury should levy on the nation's five biggest cigarette makers.
Witnesses in the landmark class-action case, filed on behalf of some 300,000 to 700,000 sick Florida smokers, contended that the companies could afford to pay $150 billion.
Lead tobacco attorney Dan Webb has warned against going even higher, possibly to $300 billion, saying that could wreck the industry. "These companies have their survival at stake," he said.
The companies want a punitive verdict of zero but sought an upper limit of $15.3 billion, their audited net worth. The industry already is paying $10 billion a year in settlements.
Circuit Judge Robert Kaye refused to set any limit on possible damages. However, Florida law says a punitive verdict cannot put a company out of business, and judges are required to reduce any award that would.
The case is expected to go to the jury late this week. Any award will be appealed and the case is expected to take at least two years to move through Florida appeal courts.
Given the numbers the jury has heard, the verdict could easily set a U.S. record in punitive damages in a product liability case, surpassing the $4.8 billion judgment against General Motors last year in a California car fire. A judge slashed that award to $1.09 billion.
The jury already has decided the industry makes a deadly, defective product and awarded $12.7 million in compensatory damages to three smokers with cancer who represented other Florida smokers. The smokers argue the industry should be required to pay for 45 years of lies, fraud and conspiracy.
The jury's decisions so far may reflect a greater willingness to accept addiction as a legitimate defense for smokers and to blame tobacco companies for their longtime unwillingness to accept responsibility for consumers' illnesses.
On the Net: Tobacco Research Network links: www.umich.edu/~umtrn/ websites.html