Tobacco trial continues despite storm

tobacco smoking A standing-room-only crowd in the gallery — and more than two dozen jurors and alternates spilling from the jury box — packed a courtroom here Monday to hear opening statements in a trial that pits regional and local medical providers against Big Tobacco.

Everything about the case is large:

  • Big dollars: The plaintiffs had sought $1 billion for the cost of treating diseases of smokers, although the demand is down to less than $500 million in actual damages, one of the defendants says.
  • Big time commitment: If the trial ran six months, as estimated, it would presumably be the St. Louis Circuit Court’s longest.
  • Big legal teams: More than a dozen lawyers sat at the plaintiff and defense tables, with legal consultants around the country receiving electronic real-time transcripts from court reporters.
  • Big effort: it has taken almost 13 years to get the case to trial.

“Everybody all right with where they’re seated?” Circuit Judge Michael David asked the 12 jurors and 14 alternates after they settled into assigned, traditional, wooden courtroom chairs that are, mercifully, equipped with brown cushions. “Sorry. No La-Z-Boys.”

The suit, filed in 1998, is the City of St. Louis v. American Tobacco. It pits 37 plaintiffs, mainly local and regional hospitals in Missouri, against 11 tobacco manufacturers.

At issue is reimbursement dating to 1993 for treating the smoking-related illnesses of patients who had no insurance and did not pay their bills.

Ken Brostron, a lawyer representing the hospitals, argued that tobacco companies knew as far back as the 1950s that cigarettes were addictive and harmful, yet continued to manufacture and market them.

“And they don’t think for one minute about who should pay for it,” he said.

Taking out dozens of packs of cigarettes from black paper bags and piling them onto the clerk’s and plaintiff’s tables, Brostron argued that cigarettes are “defective and unreasonably dangerous.”

He said internal memos and documents from cigarette companies show they don’t care about their customers.

In addition to hospital executives, he said, the jury will hear from experts in addictions and cancer, a former Philip Morris chemist, and an accountant and an economist who calculated the hospitals’ costs from tobacco.

In its opening statements, the defense conceded that tobacco companies had done bad things in the past but said there are no damages to hospitals.

Diane Sullivan, a lawyer for Philip Morris, argued that 95 percent of all patients paid their hospital bills and that only one of every five others smoked.

“The truth is, hospitals make money from our bad habits,” she said.

Sullivan predicted that the plaintiffs would do their best to get jurors angry at tobacco companies.

But she said that hospitals have mounted advertising campaigns to get smokers to use their hospitals, have allowed smoking on their campuses, and have sold cigarettes in vending machines and gift shops.

Saying that cigarettes are defective is like saying a knife is defective if you cut yourself while slicing a tomato, she said. “Just because a product is dangerous doesn’t mean it’s defective.”

Philip Morris spokesman Steve Callahan said that as the suit now stands, the claim is for $477 million on actual damages.


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