Tobacco Verdict May Shift Legal Strategies

The legal travails of the tobacco industry continue next month. So the industry won't have long to find out if its legal victory on Monday in Jacksonville, Fla., will affect other cases.

The next major lawsuit is a class-action suit brought by Miami attorney Stanley Rosenblatt on behalf of flight attendants. This case differs dramatically from the Jacksonville case, which involved a former (and now deceased) smoker suing R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. The jury absolved the company of responsibility in the woman's death.

In the coming case, the flight attendants will argue they were harmed by breathing secondhand smoke. Unlike other cases of smokers suing companies, the flight attendants had no choice except to breathe the smoke if they wanted to keep their jobs. On Sunday, the CBS show "60 Minutes" showed some of the pretrial testimony, which included executives continuing to deny any harmful effects of smoking.

Tobacco liability analysts believe there will be several ramifications of the latest company victory:

*Plaintiffs lawyers are more likely to focus on cases where smokers have tried to quit but have been unable. In the latest case, the plaintiff did not try to stop smoking for 25 years. "You have to look at each of these trials on a case by case basis," says Richard Daynard, who heads up the Tobacco Liability Institute in Boston. "Some people felt the people suing the industry would win every case but this was never realistic."

*Wall Street analysts believe the RJR victory may have some effect on the ongoing negotiations between state attorneys general, plaintiffs lawyers, health groups, and the tobacco companies. "It may make it somewhat easier for the tobacco companies to negotiate, to sell something if they come to an agreement," says Mr. Daynard. Tobacco stocks rose sharply after the verdict.

*Despite its victory, RJR had to reveal some documents that may hurt it in future cases. For example, the Florida case included a memo that it was acceptable to market cigarettes to underage smokers. This type of information could affect the industry in trials against the states of Mississippi and Florida, which will be heard this summer.

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