Court Leaves Big Tobacco Gasping for Breath

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Warning: A Florida jury has determined that big-time tobacco litigation is hazardous to the industry’s health. In a landmark class-action verdict, following eight months of testimony and eight days of deliberations, a Miami panel decided on Wednesday that the nation’s five largest cigarette makers have produced a defective, disease-causing product and that the manufacturers and two industry groups should be held accountable. The jury swept aside the industry’s long-standing contention that there is no proof that cigarette smoking causes any disease and that, besides, smokers assume any risk. The lawsuit asks for more than $200 billion in damages on behalf of 500,000 sick or deceased Floridians, and the jury will now consider how much the industry should be made to cough up.

“This is a very big decision,” says TIME senior writer Adam Cohen. “It is the tobacco industry’s worst nightmare.” If the verdict and the damages stand up on appeal, it will be a wide-open invitation for class-action lawsuits to start burning up the tobacco industry in state after state. The $206 billion national settlement the states reached with the industry last November barred them from suing to recoup the cost of treating residents, but the deal left the door open for private citizens to pursue their own claims. “Wednesday’s verdict could now encourage the industry to seek a broader national class-action settlement,” says Cohen. That could involve returning to Congress to help seal a deal. At the very least, though, the jury verdict assures that industry lawyers will soon be flocking to many a smoke-filled room to start plotting how best to reverse or appeal the Florida verdict.