Rose Cipollone's husband has spent five years fighting to get three cigarette makers to pay for his wife's lung cancer death. Very soon, he and the tobacco industry will have the answer in their landmark court battle.
Testimony in the product liability trial is over, and after closing arguments this week, the jury will begin deliberating whether the $22 billion-a-year tobacco industry should be held responsible and pay its first dollar in damages.The four-month federal court trial has been monitored closely by both the industry and health groups, with both sides fighting for the attention of the nation's 50 million smokers.
A verdict against the companies could clear the way for other lawsuits totaling millions of dollars in potential damages.
To date, plaintiffs have not won a single cigarette liability case of the dozen or so that have gone to juries since World War II. Many other suits have been dismissed or withered in the face of defense efforts by the well-financed tobacco industry. But about 100 others are pending.
"Once the first case is won, then the tobacco folks ought to pack up their bags," said John Madigan, director of governmental affairs for the American Cancer Society.
Tobacco lawyers see little chance of a loss here, and years of appeals are almost certain if there is one.
But for some anti-smoking forces, a victory already has been won. The case produced hundreds of previously secret internal corporate documents introduced as evidence and now available for litigators working against the tobacco industry.
"They show that the cigarette companies had knowledge of the problems with their products long before the general public was aware," said Mike Davis, an Austin, Texas, lawyer who has 13 suits pending.
Meanwhile, at least five bills are pending in Congress placing stricter limits on the industry. The documents have garnered support for them, said Madigan.
After the lawyers' closing arguments, the case will go to six jurors chosen by lot from among the 11 who have heard the testimony. But they will consider few of the claims in the original complaint filed by Antonio Cipollone in 1983, a year before his wife died at 58.
Most of Cipollone's legal claims have been stripped away by defense efforts. But the fundamental issue appears straightforward: free will vs. corporate responsibility.
To the defendants, Philip Morris Co., Lorillard Inc. and Liggett Group Inc., Mrs. Cipollone was an intelligent, strong-willed woman who knew the risks as she made a conscious decision to smoke.
To her husband, Mrs. Cipollone was the unwitting victim of a broad conspiracy that used the advertising and public relations to confound the public on the dangers of smoking.
U.S. District Judge H. Lee Sarokin threw out a number of liability claims, but he also said the jury can consider whether there was a "tobacco industry conspiracy, vast in its scope, devious in its purpose and devastating in its results."
The completion of the case comes as a relief to Cipollone, a 64-year-old retired cable splicer whose tearful testimony about his wife's dying moments stirred courtroom observers.
Most of documents at the core of the case were introduced as evidence for Cipollone by a Harvard Medical School physician and economist qualified as an expert on the history of tobacco company research.
The exhibits include:
-Handwritten notes by a Morris research director in the 1970s saying an industry-funded research group's program was "designed so that results cannot harm us." Morris attorney Charles Wall said that the writer was hypothesizing, and that the research was conducted objectively by independent scientists.
-A 1968 draft memo by another Morris research executive citing a "gentleman's agreement" not to do biological research on smoking and health. Wall said no such agreement existed, and noted that some companies did do such research.