- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2000

It says something about the class-action lawsuit Florida smokers filed against the industry that two of the lead plaintiffs in the case were medical officials who bragged of their own ignorance. Said one, a 44-year-old nurse, "I had no idea there was anything wrong with cigarettes at all." The night before she was to have surgery to remove a cancer-riddled lung, she testified, she stood on the steps of the hospital and smoked 10 cigarettes in quick successionApparently none of that mattered to a Florida circuit court jury, which on Friday ordered five tobacco companies to pay a combined $145 billion to hundreds of thousands of state smokers said to be suffering from diseases cause by smoking. The jury said the industry had produced a deadly product for years and, in addition, had concealed information about its harmfulness, as though it were some kind of secret. Said Stanley Rosenblatt, "This was never about money alone. This was about showing these companies up for what they are." No doubt the case was sufficiently "about money" that he intends to accept his share of it.

Whether the industry will ever have to pay that bill is unclear. Not only is the award astronomically large the largest previously was a $5 billion punitive damage award handed down against Exxon following the Valdez oil spill, and even that remains under appeal the multistage trial has involved "many unusual legal procedures," reports The Washington Post. That should give the companies grounds to appeal to a higher court. For their part, tobacco companies say they will appeal and predict they will never pay a dime of the award. The appeals process alone could take years to resolve.

One of the more interesting aspects of the trial took place outside the courtroom. Although Mr. Rosenblatt sought even more in damages than the jury decided to award, many states were far less sanguine about the financial footing of the companies. The jury award comes in the wake of a $246 billion settlement between the industry and the states designed to reimburse the states for their costs in treating "tobacco related" health problems. Concerned that the Florida jury would agree to a judgment so huge that it would bankrupt the companies, thereby costing the states some of the $246 billion, many states (including Florida) have passed laws limiting to no more than $100 million the amount of bond that the companies would otherwise have been required to post as a result of the ruling. Although Florida law forbids awards large enough to force companies into bankruptcy, the action of state lawmakers there suggests they weren't willing to leave the issue up to juries.

There are additional costs to this case that one can't measure in currency. Blaming Big Tobacco, as the nurse in this case did, is an excuse to avoid taking responsibility for one's own actions and, further, to continue engaging in risky behavior like smoking. That's a formula for more health problems, not fewer.

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