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Interview with Ralph Della Vecchia

Aired May 22, 2003 - 19:39   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: We are talking tobacco tonight and overnight the legal battlefield over tobacco has shifted dramatically. A Florida appeals court tossed out a staggering class action judgment yesterday. The 2000 ruling has sent the tobacco industry reeling.
More now from Susan Candiotti.


SUSAN CANDIOTTI, MIAMI BUREAU CHIEF (voice-over): After hearing testimony for two years, jurors delivered a landmark verdict read by the court.

A $145 billion verdict. Throughout the trial, plaintiffs attorney Stanley Rosenblatt dramatically called on jurors on send a powerful message to cigarette makers.

STANLEY ROSENBLATT, PLAINTIFFS ATTORNEY: Never again will an American industry inflict disease and death upon millions and nothing more than to satisfy their own lust for money.

CANDIOTTI: Tobacco industry lawyers argued a blockbuster verdict would go beyond punishment.

DAN WEBB, PHILIP MORRIS ATTORNEY: That amount is a death warrant, because that amount will destroy each of these companies, not once, but 10 times over.

CANDIOTTI: Jurors saw it differently. At the time the jury foreman dismissed tobacco's argument that Florida's estimated 700,000 smokers could not be treated as a class.

JAMES STOWBRIDGE, JUROR: These individuals, though we don't know their individual case we certainly can group them together because they are victims of a particular product.

CANDIOTTI: Two years later a Florida appeals court disagreed. Ruling no class action, therefore, no landmark verdict.

Susan Candiotti, CNN, Miami.


KAGAN: So where does that leave the 700,000 plaintiffs? Ralph's Della Vecchia wife Angie (ph) was one of three smokers chosen to represent the many plaintiffs. She died of lung cancer in 1999 before the ruling. Ralph joined the suit on her behalf and he joins us from Tampa. Mr. Della Vecchia, thank you for being with us.


KAGAN: First tell us a little bit more about your wife and the very sad news that she died before she could see this case completed.

DELLA VECCHIA: Yes. My wife died right after the trial started. And I was at the trial for two years every day and every time her name was mentioned it was just sad.

KAGAN: I would imagine. Our condolences on the loss of your wife.

What was your reaction about today's ruling?

DELLA VECCHIA: I was devastated. It was just -- just couldn't comprehend.

KAGAN: Especially take us, Mr. Della Vecchia, for a little bit of a ride here on this roller coaster. The odds that you and these many plaintiff his beaten to this point.

DELLA VECCHIA: Yes. We beat them on all phases, three phases. They used every trick in the book. The angle case started in 1994 and in 1996 this same appellate court, the same appellate court, said that we could have a class action suit and now they overturned it.

KAGAN: Did you ever have your doubts though, when this award came back with $144 billion. That's worth more than all these companies combined. Were you dubious that this would stick?

DELLA VECCHIA: I really did because they make billions of dollars a year. They make billions of dollars a year. That's a piece of cake to them.

KAGAN: What will you do now? The courts are saying you can go on, you can sue, but you have to do it on an individual case basis.

Do you have it in there, to do it on behalf of your wife?

DELLA VECCHIA: That's up to Stanley Rosenblatt. He's out of town. He's at a graduation with his daughter and he's not available for comment right now. But...

KAGAN: Do you have it in you to keep going?

DELLA VECCHIA: Yes, I do. Yes, do I.

KAGAN: So if he'll take on the case, you'll continue to fight.

DELLA VECCHIA: Yes. KAGAN: Ralph Della Vecchia, joining us from Tampa. Thank you so much, especially for sharing some memories of your wife. We appreciate that.

Well, this new ruling goes beyond the 700,000 smokers in Florida the case was watched across the country for its potential impact around the country for it's potential impact on the tobacco industry, and for similar case. And that's why we have Jeffrey Toobin, the day after his birthday. No cake today. No cake. No cake today. It's no cake...

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I am honoring my birthday day by day.

KAGAN: Birthday plus one.

So the panel here says this is not a class action lawsuit. You can't lump the 700,000 smokers together.

TOOBIN: You know, Daryn, I've read a lot of appellate court opinions. I don't think I have..


TOOBIN: Exactly, boy, it doesn't get any better than that. But this was one of the most scathing, vicious, total denunciations of both the trial court that conducted this trial and the plaintiff's lawyers. Just a stunning rejection. Sometimes.

KAGAN: And Mr. Rosenblatt, that's who we heard in Mr...

TOOBIN: Mr. Rosenblatt, by name is repeated criticized in this opinion. And sometimes (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the court of appeal says, they go, well you know, just do it again and do it better the next time. They say no, forget it. This is hopeless endeavor. This is not a class action. Not a legitimate case. So long.

KAGAN: You hear a widower like Mr. Della Vecchia there, and you can hear his pain. He's fighting this on behalf of his wife. He was told by one court that it was OK to go ahead with the class action lawsuit, and then you get to this level, they go, no, you shouldn't have done it that way. It's confusing.

TOOBIN: It's confusing, as the law often is. But what the court said earlier was we're not going to review the class action ruling until there's a verdict in the case.

KAGAN: Why didn't they do it that way?

Why did they let it get this far.

TOOBIN: That's how appellate courts tend to work. They don't review a case until there's a final judgment. But I think -- we can overstate how significant this is nationwide because this applies to Florida. The Florida class action is clearly dead, however this, is an intermediate appeals court. The Florida Supreme Court could step in and restate the verdict. I don't think there's any chance of $145 billion coming back. You know, the total value of these companies is $8 billion. No one's going to give plaintiffs $145 billion. But other states have completely different rules. It's quite possible that other states can continue to pile up these big verdict against the tobacco companies.

KAGAN: But one more question on the money issue here. Isn't the bigger story here that the tobacco companies had so much money that they can keep pushing and pushing and wearing down and winning the legal game because they have more money to spend on their lawyers.

TOOBIN: I'm not sure that's really true. Remember late in the Clinton administration, there were big settlements. I mean, the states got a lot of money. There has been a lot of damage judgments against these tobacco companies. But I think even their worst enemy would say that they don't have $145 billion to throw around. The net worth of these companies is 18 times less than this verdict, so that was never going to stand up. They're going to keep fight this tobacco war it's long from over. Big one for tobacco in Florida, but that doesn't mean they are going to win in the rest of the country.

KAGAN: I think there are a lot more of Mr. Della Vecchia's out there still waiting to take them on. Jeffrey Toobin, thanks for coming in tonight. Appreciate that.


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