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Smokers ask jury to consider up to $196 billion in punitive damages
MIAMI -- Smokers in a landmark case asked for up to $196 billion in punitive damages from the tobacco industry Monday to punish it for ruining the lives of millions of sick and addicted customers.
"This industry has left a half-century trail of deceit which has decimated millions of Americans," Stanley Rosenblatt said as closing arguments started in the two-year trial. "Never have so few caused so much harm to so many for so long, and the day of reckoning has arrived."
Each side has two days to summarize the class-action case on behalf of 300,000 to 700,000 sick Florida smokers against the nation's five biggest cigarette makers.
The jury of six is expected to begin deliberations as early as Friday.
The same six-member jury already has decided that the industry makes a deadly, defective product and awarded $12.7 million in compensatory damages to three representative smokers.
Rosenblatt told the jury Monday during closing arguments in the penalty phase of the case that the "absolute starting point, the absolute cellar, bottom floor" for a judgment against the tobacco industry should be $118 billion dollars but suggested $154 billion would be more "just" fine.
He called $154 billion "an appropriate, just number" but suggested jurors consider a range of $123 billion or $196 billion. Witnesses for smokers testified the defendants could afford $150 billion to $157 billion.
Tobacco companies have argued they should not be required to pay any more than their combined net worth of $15.3 billion, the difference between assets and liabilities on financial balance sheets.
Executives from Philip Morris, the top U.S. cigarette maker, along with R.J. Reynolds, Brown and Williamson, Lorillard and the Liggett Group testified for the first time as a group during the class action case.
As defendants, the five companies have argued they don't deserve to pay punitive damages because they've changed their ways. The executives have pointed out a stepped up anti-youth smoking campaign, a Web site outlining tobacco's risks, and withdrawing advertisements in popular magazines including People and Sports Illustrated.
Their attorneys have insisted the approximately $254 billion nationwide the settlement currently being paid over 25 years is punishment enough.
But Circuit Judge Robert Kaye refused to set any limit on possible damages. Florida law says a punitive verdict cannot put a company out of business, and judges are required to reduce any award that would.
Liggett Group Inc. has been at the forefront of the industry's position, saying for three years that smoking causes cancer and is addictive. The company turned over thousands of secret industry documents that pushed other companies into the settlements in 1998, sold its premium cigarette brands and no longer advertises.
Lorillard Tobacco Co. admitted the health risks of smoking for the first time on the witness stand last month. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. took that position earlier.
Industry-leading Philip Morris Inc. and No. 2 R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. cite public-health warnings about the risks of smoking but do not say as a matter of company policy that smoking causes disease.
The case is the first smokers' class-action case to go to trial. Whatever the dollar amount of the punitive damages award, the tobacco companies are sure to appeal and are likely to spend at least the next two years challenging the original liability verdicts, the compensatory damage awards of $12.7 million given to three class members in April, and the class itself, according to analysts.
Given the numbers the jury has heard, the verdict could easily set a new U.S. record for punitive damages in a product liability case, surpassing the $4.8 billion judgment against General Motors last year in a California car fire. A judge slashed that award to $1.09 billion.
Defense rests in Florida smokers case
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