Humphrey, tobacco face off today High-stakes crusade opens in Minn. court

January 26, 1998|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

In the national morality play of tobacco litigation, Minnesota Attorney General Hubert H. "Skip" Humphrey III may have the strongest claim on the role of crusading hero.

It is a role his father, the late U.S. senator and vice president whose fervent devotion to causes earned him the nickname "Happy Warrior," would have appreciated.

Today, Skip Humphrey is taking his considerable arsenal -- 33 million pages of tobacco industry documents stored in warehouses in Minnesota and England -- into battle. In a St. Paul courtroom, a jury will hear opening statements in the first of the multibillion-dollar state tobacco lawsuits to go to trial.

For Humphrey, 55, the decision not to follow the example of Mississippi, Florida and Texas by settling the case is a political gamble. A clear victory would fuel his campaign for governor of Minnesota, in which he faces another political scion, Ted Mondale, son of another former vice president. A disappointing outcome, let alone a loss, could make him the Don Quixote of the anti-tobacco movement.

"Skip Humphrey has been the engine and symbol of opposition to any settlement that gives legal immunity to the industry," says Clifford E. Douglas, a Michigan attorney and key anti-tobacco strategist. "He's built expectations very high among people around the nation and even overseas. He can't escape that now."

For the tobacco industry, the Minnesota trial could prove to be water torture, a document-by-document, witness-by-witness erosion of whatever credibility cigarette makers have left. But to persuade Humphrey to settle, tobacco executives probably would have to make public thousands more potentially incriminating documents -- at a time when a skeptical Congress is trying to decide whether the industry deserves a deal.

"I think the industry is in an extremely difficult position in Minnesota," says Richard A. Daynard, chairman of the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University. "Whether they settle or not, they're going to get beat up bad in public and look bad in front of Congress." Humphrey filed Minnesota's suit against the cigarette industry in 1994, just after his Mississippi counterpart, Michael Moore, pioneered the concept of suing to recover state tax dollars spent treating smoking-related illnesses.

But as 39 more states followed their example, the paths of the Southerner and the Northerner radically diverged. Moore chose to negotiate the colossal national settlement pending before Congress, in which the industry would pay more than $368 billion, accept advertising restrictions and act to reduce youth smoking in return for a ban on punitive damages and class-action suits.

Humphrey, meanwhile, rejected negotiations, dug out industry documents and prepared to meet his adversaries in the courtroom.

A need to punish

"Skip sees this as part of his law enforcement obligations," says Daynard. "He feels the tobacco companies have done some quite terrible things, that they need to admit to their crimes and misdemeanors, and that they need to be punished."

For Daynard, Humphrey's single-minded pursuit of the tobacco industry is reminiscent of his father's bold stand for a civil rights plank at the 1948 Democratic National Convention.

"It was seen as extreme and impractical. But it was the right thing to do, and it was prescient. I think the father would be proud of what the son is doing today."

Yet with Mississippi, Florida and Texas already spending the first dollars of a total $30 billion payout from their settlements, betting everything on a jury's whims is a risky strategy.

Moral crusade

Many observers still believe Humphrey will choose to cut a deal before trial's end, perhaps after presentation of the state's case. That would permit him to unveil industry documents he has trumpeted for months as "smoking howitzers." But once the damage from documents and witnesses is done, industry lawyers could spurn a settlement bid.

"There's always a chance he could lose, especially against big tobacco with its unlimited legal budget," says John Banzhaf, a law professor and head of Action on Smoking and Health in Washington. "Then the states that settled will be rolling in money, Minnesota will get nothing and he'll look like a fool."

Yet Humphrey, who learned only in recent years that the bladder cancer that killed his father in 1978 might have been caused by smoking, treats the trial as a moral crusade.

To remind himself of the power of his adversary, he carries a laminated news clipping reporting that Philip Morris produced 891 billion cigarettes in a recent quarter. His metaphors are Biblical.

"This is truly a David-and-Goliath battle, and David's got them on the run," Humphrey told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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