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Florida Tobacco Trial: Jury Could Award Record Punitive Damages

Aired July 14, 2000 - 2:03 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ANDRIA HALL, CNN ANCHOR: Well, after hearing the case for nearly two years, jurors began deciding today whether big tobacco companies will pay possibly billions to sick Florida smokers. The landmark civil trial is in its third phase now, the punitive or punishment phase. The verdict could shatter the record for punitive damages and, according to tobacco executives, bankrupt cigarette makers.

CNN's Susan Candiotti is at the courthouse in Miami.

Hello, Susan.

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good afternoon.

The jury has been deliberating for about three hours now. Trying to decide how much big tobacco should be punished, if at all, for what the smokers' attorney calls a half century trail of deceit. Now this is the first class-action lawsuit, the first of its kind, to reach a jury. And it could set a new record.

The jury will remember that Florida smokers, the plaintiffs in this case, want $154 billion. Big tobacco is at the other end of the scale, pleading for no damages, but assuming that plea will fail, told jurors the companies could only afford $150 to $375 million.

Trial analysts say the jury has a tough job dealing with dueling numbers.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLARK FRESHMAN, TOBACCO ANALYST: The legal system may not be able to judge how much a company is worth and how a company finances itself. So the argument might be later on that the award was too high in this case, and therefore, bankrupted companies or made them go out of products, which the public did want, or it might be so low that it actually doesn't change the way the companies behave at all. It may mean that there needs to be a further need for regulation if one believes there's an unsafe product.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CANDIOTTI: Remember last year, the same jury found: smoking causes disease and cancer; it is addictive; defective and dangerous; and that five companies conspired to commit fraud by concealment. The tobacco companies being sued are: Philip Morris; R.J. Reynolds; Brown and Williamson; Lorillard and Liggett.

Whatever the verdict, whenever it happens, we do know one thing, it will be appealed and the process could drag on for years.

Susan Candiotti, CNN, reporting live in Miami.

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