Big Tobacco Faces Its Biggest Trial Yet

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The fate of tobacco litigation in America may very well be in the hands of six Floridians. After an eight-month trial, a jury in Miami began deliberations Monday to decide the legal liability of big tobacco, including that of Philip Morris and R. J. Reynolds, in one of the big watershed trials that has long concerned the industry: a $200 billion class action lawsuit representing 500,000 sick Florida smokers and their families. The plaintiffs are claiming that cigarettes are addictive, defective, dangerous and responsible for a host of diseases -- and that the manufacturers deliberately misled consumers about their hazards. The industry contends that cigarettes are not addictive and that smokers willingly and knowingly took on the risks of smoking.

"This is a big one," says TIME senior writer Adam Cohen, who follows legal developments. "If the plaintiffs win, the floodgates of litigation that are starting to open would fling wide open." Though the industry has had a certain amount of success negotiating settlements with some government entities, a private lawsuit of such a scale has never been tested. A win for big tobacco, on the other hand, would throw cold water on future litigation. "It would not stop lawsuits altogether," says Cohen, "but it would discourage plaintiffs’ lawyers from putting in the huge amount of time and money it takes to battle the industry in court." (Lawyers usually work on a contigency basis in such cases.) With so much riding on their decision, expect the Florida jurors to take a while to reach their verdict.