Verdict Against Big Tobacco

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Verdict Against Big Tobacco

MIAMI -- The nation's biggest tobacco companies suffered their first defeat in a secondhand smoke case this week, and they said yesterday that they would use the setback to challenge a critical ruling governing the $349-million settlement they struck with the nation's flight attendants nearly five years ago.

The Miami jury awarded $5.5 million in compensatory damages to Lynn French, 56, a flight attendant who does not smoke but has chronic sinus problems from spending more than a dozen years in smoky airplane cabins, according to Reuters.

She is one of 2,800 flight attendants with similar cases against the tobacco industry under unusual conditions, stemming from the 1997 settlement, that make it easier for them to sue cigarette makers and prevail.

The tobacco companies ? Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard and Brown & Williamson ? have long sought to strip away some of the legal advantages awarded to the flight attendants, but have been blocked by the courts because they had, until now, never lost a case. The victory, however, gives them their first opportunity to challenge the right of thousands of flight attendants to bypass some basic legal hurdles.

In particular, the tobacco companies intend to contest a 2000 order by Judge Robert Kaye, the Miami circuit judge who oversaw the settlement. In it, Judge Kaye relieved the flight attendants of the burden, borne by the plaintiff in most product liability cases, of proving that the companies were either negligent or liable for making a defective product.

"That was not what we agreed to," said William Ohlemeyer, associate general counsel for Philip Morris, referring to the agreement that set aside $300 million for research into diseases suffered by flight attendants, like emphysema and lung cancer.

In the last few weeks, the tobacco industry has suffered a round of legal losses, including the reinstatement of a $79.5 million punitive award in Oregon and a ruling by a California judge that R.J. Reynolds violated the 1998 settlement with 46 states by marketing to children.