Florida case could cost Big Tobacco billions
June 21, 1999
MIAMI (CNN) -- Closing arguments were to begin Monday in the first class-action lawsuit to go to trial on behalf of smokers. The plaintiffs, 500,000 Florida smokers or their survivors, are seeking at least $200 billion in damages from the tobacco industry.
Jurors in the landmark case will determine whether the nation's five biggest cigarette makers and two trade groups should be held liable for the deaths and illnesses of smokers who claim they were addicted to nicotine.
If jurors decide find the defendants responsible, they then will decide whether plaintiffs are entitled to punitive damages and how much. Yet another trial phase would focus on individual cases.
Attorney Stanley Rosenblatt, representing the plaintiffs, has contended that the tobacco companies hid the health and addiction risks of smoking, costing the smokers their health.
"They're selling a frivolous product that nobody needs. It's not food or water or shelter or clothing, and it kills people. Yet it's an incredibly profitable product. The tobacco company is very good at conning people," he said.
Defense lawyers in the trial, which has been under way since October, have argued that smokers should bear the responsibility of medical costs, because the health risks have been known for years.
"In 1604, King James was writing pamphlets about the health risks of smoking," said Robert Heim, counsel for Philip Morris Companies Inc. "And in the Florida school curriculum, beginning in about 1910, the school children were taught about the health risks of smoking."
But Mildred Miller, a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed in 1994, blames tobacco companies for her lung and heart ailments.
"I've had problems from smoking, and I'm addicted to smoking and I can't stop," she said. "I didn't know they were addictive when I first started smoking."
Undercutting the addiction argument, tobacco attorneys contend that 45 million people in the United States have quit smoking in the last 30 years.
The only previous class action suit against the industry to go to trial was filed by flight attendants, who contended that secondhand smoke made them sick. In that case, handled by Rosenblatt and his wife, Susan, the industry agreed on a $300 million settlement to establish a research foundation.
Correspondent Mark Potter contributed to this report.
Justice Department wants $20 million to sue tobacco industry
WHO/OMS: World Health Organization
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