A One-Time Tobacco Case — Close or No Cigar?

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Like a Band-Aid being slowly, painfully pulled from a hair-covered forearm, tobacco companies in the past few years have faced a steady succession of product liability cases. Now a federal judge wants to pull the whole Band-Aid off in one swift tug. District Judge Jack B. Weinstein has ordered plaintiffs' lawyers and tobacco companies to discuss a single settlement to end all tobacco litigation in the nation, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday. The so-called "tobacco wars" have been a piecemeal affair so far, with many different types of plaintiffs dealing with different laws in different jurisdictions. To Weinstein, who has a history of consolidating and simplifying convoluted product liability cases, this is not only confusing but perhaps also unjust. For example, it is possible that awards resulting from a couple of early cases could drive one or more of the companies to bankruptcy, thus leaving no money for plaintiffs with equally valid claims.

"It's a bold move," says TIME legal affairs writer Adam Cohen. "And it has the potential to benefit both sides." But although Weinstein's proposal would appear to be fair and beneficial to both parties, it may well end up being unworkable in the massive and varied world of tobacco-injury lawsuits. For instance, unlike previous successful class action suits, such as those involving asbestos or Agent Orange, the plaintiffs against tobacco do not all have similar cases. There are, for example, people who began smoking before warnings were issued, those who started after the warnings and those harmed by secondhand smoke. Then there are the varying interests of the individuals, corporations (such as insurance companies) and government institutions (local, state and federal) bringing the suits. In addition, the Supreme Court and the appellate courts tend to be cautious about the manageability of large class action suits with a diverse group of plaintiffs. At age 78, Judge Weinstein seems unlikely to be around long enough to hear the case in his courtroom.