Tobacco Trial About To Get Underway

Testimony begins Wednesday in a statewide class-action lawsuit against the nation's tobacco companies, seeking to force cigarette-makers to pay for medical testing and to help smokers in Louisiana quit. The suit, filed in state district court in 1997, alleges that tobacco companies manipulated nicotine levels to keep smokers addicted.

State law bars punitive damages for most liability suits, so eye-popping punitive damages like those in recent cases in Florida and Los Angeles do not appear possible. In Florida, the industry was hit by a $145 billion judgment in July 2000. In June, a jury in Los Angeles awarded $3 billion to a cancer-stricken smoker. Although there have been no estimates of how much the tobacco industries would have to pay if the plaintiffs get everything they want, attorneys in a more-restrictive West Virginia case estimate the potential cost to the industry at hundreds of millions of dollars.

A jury was selected earlier this summer and estimates on testimony range from six months to a year. Attorneys, plaintiffs and witnesses were recently slapped with an order by Civil District Judge Richard Ganucheau not to discuss the case. Ganucheau will hear motions from attorneys Tuesday before bringing the jury in on Wednesday. The judge plans to hear the case in two phases. The first phase will cover whether nicotine in cigarettes caused two women listed as class representatives, Gloria Scott and Deanna Jackson, to continue smoking and whether cigarettes are defective products under Louisiana liability law. That phase also will address whether quit-smoking programs and medical monitoring are justified for the two women.

The same jury then will decide whether as many as 500,000 Louisiana smoker are entitled to similar benefits and how to award common damages. There has been no estimate of what the tobacco companies might have to pay should the plaintiffs get everything they want. The tobacco industry contends that addiction is a person-by-person issue that should be decided in individual trials.

A similar suit also goes to trial for a second time in West Virginia on Wednesday with jury selection. That class-action case seeks medical monitoring, paid for by the tobacco industry, for as many as 250,000 smokers. In that case, creating a medical monitoring program could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, said Jeff Furr, an attorney for R.J. Reynolds. A mistrial in the case was declared in January and witnesses and attorneys have been told that they must focus on issues that are common to all smokers. Judge Arthur Recht also has told attorneys that they must address the conduct of the tobacco companies and not the conduct of smokers.