Huffing and Puffing and Blowing Big Tobacco Down

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Let me be among the first to announce that the term "gracious losers" does not — and probably never will — apply to executives of Big Tobacco. The same goes for their legal counsel. Friday, when a Florida jury returned their $145 billion verdict against the country's largest cigarette manufacturers, attorneys for Philip Morris (which was ordered to pay more than $70 billion of the punitive damages) met the news with the same charm one might expect from an ill-tempered boa constrictor. Several were actually frothing at the mouth.

"We do not intend to settle this lawsuit," one Philip Morris lawyer cried during the post-verdict press conference. "This is the result of an incredibly flawed procedure!"

"This is a verdict in favor of no one," another PM attorney hissed. "It will have no practical impact on Philip Morris or its employees, because a final verdict won't be reached for 75 years."

That's a bit of a stretch. While their lawyers can be forgiven for downplaying the financial effects of the verdict for anxious stockholders, the tobacco companies are dreaming if they think they're going to weasel out of the damages altogether. Granted, they will never have to pay the full bill; thanks to the tobacco interests in the Florida legislature, it's now illegal to bankrupt a company via punitive damages. And at this rate, that's exactly what this kind of settlement would do; big tobacco is mortgaged to the hilt, and the companies are already chained to a payment plan for the historic (and bank-breaking) agreement with various states' attorneys general.

This class action suit, which over the course of two years had evolved into big tobacco's worst nightmare, represented roughly half a million sick smokers. The jury (who, in the judge's words, "will all be forgiven if they never want to serve on a jury again") had already decided the companies create a "defective and dangerous" product, and awarded $12.7 million in compensatory damages to three sick smokers. And Philip Morris, Liggett, et al. would have been more than happy to see the case end there. Unfortunately for them, there are a lot of sick and dying smokers out there, and the majority of Americans are not particularly sympathetic to cries of distress from fat cat CEOs who make a living selling a poisonous product.