Suit against cigarette maker dropped Family requests dismissal after lawyers back out

November 06, 1992|By Boston Globe

A landmark tobacco liability case in New Jersey that may have opened the door a crack for similar lawsuits has ended abruptly after the family of the dead woman asked a federal court to dismiss the suit.

The family of Rose Cipollone sought the dismissal, which was approved yesterday in a Newark federal court, after its lead attorney said his firm was withdrawing from all its tobacco cases. The firm's management thought the cases had become a financial drag, said the attorney, Marc Z. Edell, in a telephone interview.

"Their position is we certainly have done more than anybody could expect in advancing the ball against the tobacco industry, in conducting discovery and revealing evidence of intentional wrongdoing by the industry," said Mr. Edell. "I guess enough is enough.

The case began in 1983 when Mrs. Cipollone of Little Ferry, N.J., sued cigarette companies that manufactured the brands she had smoked for four decades. After her death in 1984 and her husband's in 1990, their son, Thomas, carried the appeal.

The case yielded a 1988 jury verdict of $400,000 -- the first monetary award in a tobacco liability case -- against Liggett Group Inc. The verdict later was overturned on appeal.

It ultimately reached the Supreme Court, which last spring ordered a new trial in a complex 7-2 decision that said a 1965 law requiring warning labels on cigarette packages did not shield tobacco companies from all lawsuits based on state personal injury laws. But the court said plaintiffs need to do more than prove that cigarette advertisements and promotions tend to minimize health hazards.

Specialists split over the ultimate effect of the decision. Many lawyers said it made it easier to sue cigarette makers, while industry executives argued just the opposite.

But what had already been clear was the expense and difficulty of bringing a tobacco liability case. Mr. Edell said yesterday his firm had out-of-pocket costs alone of $500,000 to $1 million. He said Thomas Cipollone did not wish to pursue the lawsuit after Mr. Edell's Short Hills, N.J., firm, Budd, Larner, Gross, Rosenbaum, Greenberg & Sade, decided to withdraw.

The symbolic loss of Mr. Edell and his firm in the fight against the tobacco companies -- which spent $70 million or more, by some estimates, to defend the Cipollone case -- was viewed as a blow to those seeking to hold manufacturers liable for the ills of their product.

Plaintiffs' lawyers and anti-tobacco activists said the Cipollones' legal legacy will outweigh the impact of the departure of the case and Mr. Edell.

"It certainly has a symbolic and emotional negative," said Boston lawyer Eric Nissen, who represents a Cambridge, Mass., woman whose lawsuit against American Tobacco Co. got new life from the Supreme Court's ruling. "It's another time where you say, 'Does their charmed life go on?' "

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