- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 29, 2001

A circuit judge court in Miami-Dade County has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Republic of Ecuador against U.S. tobacco companies seeking to recover the cost of treating sick smokers in that country. Judge Paul Siegel said the lawsuit by Ecuador and other lawsuits by foreign countries dont belong in his courtroom because they are "too remote."

Whatever the reasoning, the dismissal of Ecuador´s lawsuit is significant because it could portend a similar fate for 10 other lawsuits filed in Miami against tobacco companies by foreign governments. The pending suits were brought by states in Brazil and the nations of Venezuela, Belize, Russia, Honduras and Tajikistan.

U.S. Federal Judge Paul Friedman used similar reasoning in dismissing earlier suits filed in Washington by American lawyers on behalf of Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ukraine and the Canadian province of Ontario. The suits were obviously inspired by the tobacco industry´s $254-billion settlement with 46 states in late 1998. Those suits ostensibly were filed to cover the costs of treating sick smokers and financing public education campaigns to discourage smoking, although the bulk of the money doled out to date has gone to some of America´s most notorious personal injury lawyers.

Since then a number of those attorneys have been touring Latin America and Asia, seeking to convince foreign governments to file similar lawsuits in U.S. courts against American tobacco companies. Most legal experts say such lawsuits barely have standing in U.S. courts, where judges have ruled time and time again that they lack legal merit.

Guatemala, Nicaragua and Ecuador, the three Latin American countries involved thus far, may well have been conned by slick American trial lawyers looking to line their own pockets at the expense of gullible clients.

The U.S. lawyers reportedly have assured the foreign governments they have courted that the U.S. tobacco companies would settle out-of-court at the first hint of a lawsuit. Lawyers for tobacco companies, however, have been adamant that their settlement with the 46 states here should not be taken in any way as a sneak preview of their reaction to lawsuits by foreign governments.

All three of the nations that sued and lost are heavily involved in the cigarette trade within their own borders. Cigarettes are a legal product in all three nations, licensed for sale by the government and heavily taxed as well. Whatever short-term benefits the three Latin American countries might have obtained from successful lawsuits likely would have been offset by the loss of desperately needed foreign investment. U.S. companies, not to mention their European and Japanese counterparts, are seeking to invest in countries that have stable and predictable business climates. The feeling is that if a nation is willing to sue one U.S. industry on such flimsy grounds it obviously is willing to sue others as well. With a new administration that has a decidedly more pro-business attitude than its predecessor, such lawsuits could trigger economic repercussions in foreign aid and trade relations as well.

The governments of Panama and Venezuela still have lawsuits pending against American tobacco companies in U.S. courts. They should ponder the fate of Nicaragua, Guatemala and Ecuador and the long-term economic repercussions as well before they proceed with such ill-advised legal actions.

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