Archive for Sunday, July 16, 2000

Jurors wanted to send unmistakable message

July 16, 2000

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— After listening to two years of trial, a jury of six men and women didn't hesitate to tell Big Tobacco to pay $145 billion in punitive damages to ailing Florida smokers.

"We all thought we needed to send a strong message based on the evidence," said jury foreman Leighton Finegan. "The message was sent."

Plaintiff Ralph Della Vecchia, right, whose wife, Angie, died of
cancer, hugs Margaret Amodeo, wife of plaintiff Frank Amodeo, after
the jury returned a verdict Friday in the punitive phase of the
Florida smokers trial. The jury ordered the tobacco industry Friday
to pay $145 billion in punitive damages to sick Florida smokers.

Plaintiff Ralph Della Vecchia, right, whose wife, Angie, died of cancer, hugs Margaret Amodeo, wife of plaintiff Frank Amodeo, after the jury returned a verdict Friday in the punitive phase of the Florida smokers trial. The jury ordered the tobacco industry Friday to pay $145 billion in punitive damages to sick Florida smokers.

The cigarette makers had argued against punitive damages, saying billion-dollar payments could destroy the companies. But jurors said the industry lawyers had offered no credible evidence to prove the companies couldn't afford the price.

"I'm not an idiot," said Gary Chwast, a postal worker on the jury. "The CEOs of the tobacco companies are making millions. Why are they making so much if the companies don't have the money? What are you not telling me? It offends me."

Finegan said he found the tobacco lawyers insulting, especially when they attempted to explain away plaintiff Frank Amodeo's throat cancer by saying it was caused by wood dust the clockmaker had inhaled at work, not cigarettes.

"To us, that was unbelievable," he told The Miami Herald on Friday. "It was insulting to me and an incredible level of denial in the face of all the evidence and the earlier verdict."

It was the third time the jury had deliberated in the case, the first smokers' class-action lawsuit to go to trial. The same jurors decided in July 1999 that the industry made a deadly product. In April, they ordered the industry to pay $12.7 million in compensatory damages to three smokers who representing the class, including Amodeo.

The jurors got the punitive damages part of the case Friday morning, and by Friday afternoon, after less than five hours of deliberations, their decision was made.

Finegan, a vice principal at an elementary school, said the jurors felt justified in their swift decision.

"I hope it sends a strong message for all companies in America that they can't fraudulently represent anything to the public," he said.

"This case was not about choosing to smoke," Chwast said. "It's about if you know you're making a defective product, and these companies knew that."

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