A lawsuit filed with little fanfare three years ago in Brooklyn has emerged as
the latest flashpoint in the high-stakes legal battle between the tobacco
industry and opponents who claim it conspired to conceal the dangers of smoking.
Attorneys are to begin picking jurors today for a two-month trial pitting a
trust fund for sick asbestos workers against R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson
and other tobacco giants.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs say damages could exceed $3 billion.
The trial is the first from a backlog of about a dozen tobacco claims in
federal court in Brooklyn. Unlike class-action suits filed by consumers, most
of the Brooklyn cases were brought by third parties, including health insurance
groups that want Big Tobacco to share the cost of treating patients with
In the trial, the plaintiff is a trust made up of blue-collar workers and
their heirs. It was formed in 1988 after the nation's largest asbestos maker,
Johns-Manville Corp., went bankrupt amid an avalanche of suits brought by
plaintiffs suffering from lung disease linked to asbestos.
The trustees, much like the plaintiffs in the record $145 billion verdict
won by Florida smokers, accuse the tobacco industry of putting profit before
public health. They allege cigarette companies are liable because they
concealed medical evidence that "smoking, an activity indisputably dangerous to
human health in and of itself, is even more lethal to individuals
occupationally exposed to asbestos." The trust represents "hundreds of
thousands of people who were exposed to asbestos," said Peter Bicks, a
Manhattan attorney for the trustees. "The trust does not have enough money to
satisfy their claims." A jury could hear opening arguments as early as Dec. 4.
Among the witnesses expected to testify are tobacco executives like
Lorillard chief executive Martin Orlowsky and experts like Dr. Julius Richmond,
a former surgeon general who testified in the Florida case that the tobacco
industry refused to cooperate with government efforts to reduce smoking disease
David Bernick, an attorney for Brown & Williamson, said the defense will
try to convince jurors that unlike asbestos makers, the tobacco companies never
conspired to hide health risks from workers. He characterized the suit as an
"unjust and unfair" bid by the trust "to put more money in the till." All of
the Brooklyn tobacco cases have been assigned to U.S. District Judge Jack B.
Weinstein, who has tried to steer lawyers toward negotiating a nationwide
settlement of all tobacco cases.
But defense attorneys so far have resisted Weinstein's prodding.
"We don't think there's a legal basis for these claims, so we have no
reason to settle," Bernick said. The tobacco industry also believes that
settlements "only tend to breed more litigation," he added.
Still, some observers believe a Brooklyn jury could change some tobacco
defendants' minds about settling.
The case "is important because Judge Weinstein has made it clear he wants
to do something big," said Richard Daynard, a Northeastern University law
professor who has worked with attorneys suing tobacco companies. "If the case
is successful, it will give him more to work with in terms of a global