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In Major Victory for Tobacco, R.J. Reynolds Wins Lawsuit

By Henry Weinstein
Los Angeles Times

In a major victory for the tobacco industry, a jury in Jacksonville, Fla., on Monday found R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. not liable for the lung-cancer death of Jean Connor, a lifelong smoker.

The six member jury - which included a smoker and three former smokers - concluded that cigarettes manufactured by RJR, the nation's second largest cigarette company, were not "unreasonably dangerous and defective" and did not cause the death of Connor, who died two years ago at age 49.

Reynolds' win came after a string of bad news for the $50 billion-a-year industry, including numerous leaks of damaging documents, mounting litigation against the industry and a landmark court decision by a North Carolina federal court judge that the Food and Drug Administration has the right to regulate tobacco.

The victory also came as negotiators for the industry and representatives of 25 state attorneys general resumed talks in Dallas Monday, aimed at settling massive lawsuits in which states are seeking compensation for money expended treating sick smokers.

Most analysts said the Jacksonville case came at an important moment for the industry and was likely to increase the prospects of a negotiated settlement.

In addition, tobacco stocks shot up after the verdict was announced. RJR Nabisco Holdings soared 3 1/8 to close at 32 5/8 and Philip Morris, the nation's largest cigarette maker, skyrocketed 4 1/8 to 44 1/8.

"It's a fabulous day for the tobacco industry" and will encourage settlement, said Gary Black of Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., one of the nation's leading tobacco analysts who had followed progress of the case closely.

"It helps settlement immensely," said Black, because if Connor's heirs had won a big punitive damage award, it would have been "almost politically impossible for the anti-tobacco crowd to bless" any settlement in which the industry was given any immunity from future liability, a demand industry lawyers have been making in negotiations.

Similar sentiments were made by a Boston law professor who is as hostile to the tobacco industry as Black is sympathetic. "I think the verdict is obviously going to be useful as a way of selling whatever the negotiators agree to," said Richard Daynard, co-director of the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University. "If it came out the other way, the negotiators would have had a hard time selling anything."

Two RJR lawyers hailed the verdict in the case which had been closely watched, in part because one of the lead lawyers for the plaintiffs, Woody Wilner, had won a $750,000 product liability judgment against Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. in Jacksonville last August, on behalf of smoker Grady Carter, who had lung cancer.

That verdict is on appeal and so far the tobacco industry has yet to pay out a dime in damages in more than three decades of litigation. Reynolds also won another product liability case in Indiana in the interim.

"I think that this again tells us that the American jury system, despite a massive amount of publicity, is still willing to listen to the evidence, follow the law, and that smoking is a matter of choice," said Paul Crist of Cleveland's Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue, who earlier prevailed in similar cases in Tennessee and Illinois.

In his closing argument, Crist asserted that Connor had made a voluntary decision to smoke and aware of the possible risks - an argument that has proved most successful for the cigarette injury in personal injury lawsuits.

Daniel Donahue, RJR's senior vice president and deputy general counsel, said the verdict showed that "jurors understand that the risks of the use of this product have been well-known for decades, if not centuries," and that "our society has made the policy decision that against the backdrop of those known risks, these are products which people ought to be allowed the opportunity to purchase."

Two of the plaintiffs' lawyers and other tobacco foes, including John Garrison, chief executive of the American Lung Association, said they saw the verdict as a temporary setback. They also stressed that the massive suits filed by the state attorneys general that lead to the current settlement negotiations are based on different legal theories than those in the Connor case.

"Don't forget, I lost my first two asbestos cases and you know what happened after that," said Ronald L. Motley of Charleston, S.C., referring to the fact that he had subsequently won numerous multimillion-dollar verdicts against asbestos companies.