Minn. jury to get landmark tobacco case State victory could ruin industry, observers say

May 08, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- A Minnesota jury will shortly make a decision that will rank among the most important in the history of American public health.

After four months, Minnesota vs. Big Tobacco is headed toward a jury, with the state's closing arguments set for today. Every significant argument about smoking that modern medicine has developed has been made. The industry's behavior has been scrutinized as never before.

The case may well be D-Day in the tobacco wars, with the financial stability of the cigarette companies and the possibilities of anti-tobacco legislation in Congress hanging on the outcome. Either way, the release of millions of pages of internal company documents during the trial has forever changed the landscape in which the tobacco industry operates.

"If Minnesota wins, that is the beginning of the end for the tobacco industry. They're headed for Chapter 11" bankruptcy protection, said Richard McGowan, an economist at Boston College who studies the tobacco industry.

A victory for Minnesota and Blue Cross-Blue Shield, a co-plaintiff, would most likely spur dozens of other states, health insurance companies, unions, hospitals, and private citizens to sue the industry. The threat of those lawsuits may make the cigarette companies, which last month launched an aggressive attack on proposed anti-tobacco legislation, far more eager to get some protection -- anything -- from Congress.

If Minnesota wins, "it would help us a lot here," said Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota.

A victory for the tobacco industry, on the other hand, would kill much of the momentum of the anti-tobacco movement.

"A loss for Minnesota would be a serious blow," said Marc Galanter, a University of Wisconsin law professor. "This is the best-prepared case by extremely competent lawyers and favorable state legal conditions. We'd then really have to assess whether American juries will ever go after tobacco."

Whatever the outcome, the world of tobacco is forever changed because of the 33 million pages of internal company documents made public during the trial. The papers illustrate exactly how, for decades, the tobacco industry sought to manipulate the public. It hid and destroyed scientific evidence that showed smoking is harmful. It also conducted aggressive campaigns to discredit opponents.

The documents made it harder to tobacco's political allies to continue their support.

"The Minnesota case has already had an impact on Washington. The documents have given Congress a spine to act," said Wellstone.

A steady flow of lawyers has already visited the repository in St. Paul to research possible cases.

"It's like the toothpaste being out of the tube. You can't get it back in again. The industry has been incriminated," said Richard Daynard, the head lawyer of the Tobacco Products Liability Project in Boston.

Minnesota and Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Minnesota filed their lawsuit against the tobacco industry in 1994 to recover $1.77 billion they claim they have spent treating smoking-related illnesses. They are also seeking punitive damages. The crux of their case is that the industry has intentionally mislead consumers for decades by destroying or hiding evidence of smoking's harms and using deceptive advertising.

The industry is relying on its bread-and-butter defense: Smokers have known about smoking's harms and made a choice, for which they alone are responsible. The industry also argued that the $1.77 billion the plaintiffs are asking for is badly inflated.

Historically, the companies' arguments have worked. In their lawsuit-filled history, tobacco lawyers have lost but one case, in 1996, when a Florida jury awarded $750,000 to a long-time smoker with lung cancer.

There are 36 states -- including Maryland -- preparing to go to trial with the industry.

Pub Date: 5/08/98

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