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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Phillip Morris Suit Faces Music of the Jury

The Broward County Courthouse is smoking again. And Philip Morris may be lit up by a jury. Big Tobacco lawsuits are back in court.

Tonya Alanez of the Sun Sentinel reports in today's edition that the complex lawsuit is back in the courtroom of Judge Jeffrey Streitfeld. Jurors heard opening statements yesterday.

It is the first such case to go to trial since the Florida Supreme Court threw out a record $145 billion class-action verdict in 2006. This one involves a Cooper City widow whose husband died of lung cancer twelve years ago.

The Florida Supreme Court did uphold the original jury's findings that tobacco companies concealed the dangers of smoking. But each case has to be decided individually. So we have about twenty trillion to try. Okay, but the first time the NY Times reported smoking was dangerous was in a front page story in 1965.

Will a new breed of jurors mandate more individual responsibility for smokers who knowingly consumed a dangerous product in the face of obvious risks? Or will they conclude people were wrongfully induced into thinking that by smoking 'better tasting' cigarettes they were going to get laid every nite? Who was right, who was wrong, and whose fault was it?

This is the second attempt to launch this trial, but its part of a countless process to use the courts to hold manufacturers of dangerous products liable for the consequences of their recklessness. The US Supreme Court opened its October term with a dispute over whether federal regulation of cigarettes prevents smokers from suing tobacco companies under state law for allegedly deceptive advertising of "light" cigarettes. So there are more suits on the way.

Philip Morris chose "to conspire, to conceal the dangers of smoking from the public," Hess' attorney, Adam Trop, said in his opening statement. And if they knew, whose to say they would they have stopped? Millions of cigarettes are still consumed today.

Philip Morris' attorney, Kenneth Reilly, said Hess could have stopped smoking, but chose to continue. But if they had better information, truer information, at their disposal, might they not have made more educated choices???

This is a case with far reaching and dramatic legal issues of enormous dimension for our entire community. Unlike Anna Nicole Smith, it won't make CNN 24/7. The judge will not cry on the bench over the plaintiff's passing, and he will not wind up on the Larry King Show. But this case will draw some national attention and provide for compelling drama over a fascinating legal principle. If you are in the courthouse, it is worth checking out.

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