Secondhand smoke trial under way
Landmark case pits flight attendants against tobacco industryJune 2, 1997
Web posted at: 12:16 p.m. EDT (1616 GMT)
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MIAMI (CNN) -- Jury selection was under way on Monday in a $5 billion class-action lawsuit on behalf of 60,000 nonsmoking flight attendants who say smoke in aircraft cabins gave them lung cancer and other ailments.
It is the first secondhand-smoking case against the tobacco industry to make it to trial.
Smoking was banned on most domestic flights in 1990, a year before the lawsuit was filed.
By last summer, four-fifths of U.S. airline flights to and from other countries were smokeless, and more will go smoke-free this year.
The trial begins with the tobacco industry already on the defensive against federal regulators, who want to curb tobacco advertising and its availability to young people.
In addition, cigarette makers face 32 state lawsuits seeking compensation for Medicaid money spent on sick smokers.
'Our lungs burned'
The original 1991 lawsuit was filed by 26 nonsmoking flight attendants, two of whom have since died of cancer.
"Whenever we flew in tobacco-filled cabins, our eyes burned, our lungs burned," lead plaintiff Norma Broin said.
"We had sinusitis, bronchitis, respiratory problems," said Broin, an American Airlines flight attendant since 1976 whose lung cancer was diagnosed in 1989 and is now in remission.
"I'm very happy we're going to court to show what it's like to be abused by secondhand smoke, if not killed," said Patty Young, another plaintiff.
But Dade County Circuit Judge Robert Kaye appears skeptical. "Was the exposure in the airline cabin the sole cause or was it the bar they went to and spent three to four hours every day?" he asked during pretrial motions.
Case rides on scientific evidence
To win, the flight attendants' lawyers must prove that secondhand smoke causes illness, that the industry was aware of a health threat to attendants, that companies fraudulently misrepresented the hazard of secondhand smoke, and ultimately that the companies are financially liable.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has declared environmental tobacco smoke a cause of cancer, and a recent report said Harvard University researchers found that exposure to secondhand smoke nearly doubled the risk of heart disease.
But experts say the research on passive smoking is rather skimpy, and issues such as the chemical makeup of different types of environmental smoke muddy the waters.
"We're looking at exhaled smoke, not inhaled smoke. Then we're looking at sidestream smoke, which again is a different composition," said Jean Eggen, a law professor at Widener University law school in Wilmington, Delaware.
"There's no specific level of environmental tobacco smoke which could pose a risk for any individual," said attorney Daniel Donahue, representing R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., one of the defendants in the case.
In addition to what it sees as the weakness of the scientific evidence, the tobacco industry believes the flight attendants will be hard pressed to prove cigarette makers did anything wrong by making and selling a legal product.
"I know the odds are against us winning," said attorney Susan Rosenblatt, who, with her husband, Stanley, is representing the flight attendants. "Stanley doesn't like me to say that, but that is ... how I feel."
The Rosenblatts fear current negotiations between the industry and state attorneys general to settle tobacco lawsuits could pull the rug from under the secondhand-smoking case by setting a cap on damages the tobacco industry would have to pay.
But Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth said that wouldn't happen. "Anything we are doing will have no impact on (their) case," Butterworth said.
There is a lot at stake in this case. If the flight attendants prevail and a jury believes secondhand smoke causes disease, that could open a floodgate of similar suits against the tobacco industry.
If tobacco prevails it would be yet another victory for an industry that has never paid anybody anything for damages in smoking-related case.
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