Why, Apart from Elian, All Eyes Are on Florida

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If you can't get through to your friendly K Street lobbyist in the next few weeks, you might want to send a search party to Florida; in particular, to Miami, where a set of jurors has less than two months to decide on awarding punitive damages in a case that could cripple the tobacco industry. On Friday the jury found that the tobacco industry's products were responsible for the ailments of the suit's three plaintiffs, all long-time smokers. If the plaintiffs, part of a class-action suit, are awarded the $13.2 million in compensatory damages they sought, the industry could be liable for up to $300 billion in punitive damages, to be meted out to Florida's estimated 500,000 residents suffering the ill effects of smoking.

Coming on the heels of Thomas Penfield Jackson's finding against Microsoft and state court actions brought against gun manufacturers, the Florida verdict seems to shore up a trend in which the public is turning to the courts and local governments — rather than to federal politicians — to seek redress against powerful special interests. It also explains why the Washington lobbyists would want to spread their gospel beyond the Beltway. "The judge will always instruct the jury that they're only to base their judgment on the facts of this case and not accept any outside influence," says TIME legal analyst Alain Sanders. "But jurors are people, and it would be foolish to assume they're not influenced by the world around them. And that could include an intense lobbying effort by the tobacco companies."