Tobacco Lawyers: Why This Time They Might Love to Be Hated

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Big Tobacco and their attorneys get called a lot of things, but stupid — or suicidal — is rarely one of them. How, then, to explain the tactics industry lawyers used during and after their latest legal battle, tactics that incensed the very jurors charged with setting a price tag on tobacco's defeat?

On the attorneys' attempt to explain away plaintiff Frank Amodeo's throat cancer by saying it was caused by wood dust the clockmaker had inhaled at work, not cigarettes: "To us, that was unbelievable," Finegan said. "It was insulting to me and an incredible level of denial in the face of all the evidence and the earlier verdict."

On Philip Morris attorney Dan Webb's plea to jurors not to punish them with a large award, and his claim that the $145 billion award was "a death warrant": "He ignored the death warrant on the millions of lives of people [the tobacco industry] lied about," jury foreman Leighton Finegan said. "For them — Big Tobacco — this trial was about money. For us, it was about people's lives... We still feel they're arrogant."

Yeah, but they just might just be arrogant like a fox.

After two previous losing verdicts with the same jury — in July 1999, the jury found that the industry made a deadly product, and in April, they ordered the industry to pay $12.7 million in compensatory damages to three smokers representing the class in this suit — Big Tobacco surely knew what was coming. They also knew, the third time through, who they were really arguing for, and it wasn't the jury. It was the judge, who can reduce the verdict unilaterally; the appeals court, which is the huge award's next stop; and Wall Street. Wondering why tobacco stocks actually went up briefly when the verdict was announced, and why losses for the day were minimal? Because a number like $145 billion just screams "We won't have to pay."

The Florida law that outlaws any award that would bankrupt its target was nice planning by industry lobbyists, and one this size surely falls into that category. The judge is expected to do his part in whittling down the amount. And the appeals process — whether it's the two-year trip to the Florida Supreme Court envisioned by most experts, or the 75-year flood of individual trials that Webb was crowing about — ought to do the rest. The tobacco lawyers' shrill and relentless hubris might just have resulted in an award that's more like a balloon than a bill, overinflated and ready to burst.

Still, sometimes that arrogance sounds awfully genuine — and reflexive. Said Philip Morris' Webb: "There's probably not a country in the world that can withstand a verdict this size."

Perhaps for him, Marlboro country is more than just an ad campaign.