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NEW YORK -- The federal appeals court in New York is considering a case that could drastically reshape the national legal battle over the health effects of cigarettes and could set the stage for the largest verdict ever against the tobacco industry, reported the New York Times.
A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is reviewing a controversial decision by a federal judge in Brooklyn, who ruled two years ago in a class-action suit that he would subject tobacco companies to a single national trial that would determine once and for all whether the companies should be assessed punitive damages for concealing the health hazards of smoking.
The judge, Jack B. Weinstein of United States District Court, said he would preside over a huge trial that would not evaluate individual claims for compensation, but would decide only whether the country's tobacco companies should be assessed punitive damages because of the harm done to millions of smokers and their survivors.
Saying "the time for bringing a close to tobacco litigation is nigh," Weinstein said in court that his trial could bring a resolution to the tobacco legal wars that have inched along in the courts for decades. The trial he proposes, he said, "would be the end of punitive damages in Tobaccoland."
Verdicts assessing millions and sometimes billions of dollars in punitive damages, which are meant to punish and deter wrongdoing, have been the focus of furious complaints by industries in recent years and several critical rulings by the United States Supreme Court.
But lawyers with experience in tobacco cases say a national trial to determine punitive damages involving the claims of millions of smokers could invite jurors to hand down a verdict of unprecedented size.
Though the Brooklyn case has attracted little public notice, it has drawn wide attention among corporations nationwide because of the impact it may have on damage suits against many other industries. Many groups, including the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, have submitted written arguments opposing the trial.
Punitive damages recovered from the companies, Judge Weinstein said in his ruling, could be distributed to ailing smokers and deceased smokers' families and used for treatment, research and antismoking activities.
The case began in 1999 as a more traditional class-action suit, filed by lung cancer victims seeking compensation from tobacco companies. But after Judge Weinstein suggested in court that the case could be restructured to deal with tobacco issues in a much broader way, the plaintiffs' lawyers filed a new suit in 2000, asking for the once-and-for-all determination of punitive damages.
Under his order, individual smokers and their survivors could still sue for compensation for lost income or healthcare costs. But the trial would foreclose claims for punitive damages by all smokers who received a diagnosis of any of 16 smoking-related diseases, including cancer and heart disease, between 1993 and the start of the trial.
The appeals court heard oral arguments last November. In filings to the appeals court, the tobacco companies labeled the ruling a breathtaking, arbitrary, baseless analysis that ignored Supreme Court rulings.