Attorneys give closing arguments in lawsuit pitting smokers against big tobacco companies
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Attorneys gave their final summaries and appeals to jurors Monday in a trial that seeks to determine the responsibility of the major tobacco companies in hundreds of cigarette-linked illnesses and deaths in West Virginia.
Jury selection, beginning with a staggering pool of 8,000 Kanawha County residents, began in mid-April. Senior Status Judge Arthur Recht of Ohio County is presiding.
Missouri attorney Kenneth McClain gave a three-hour closing argument Monday morning for the plaintiffs, followed by comments from defense attorneys representing the corporations. Those proceedings went late into the afternoon.
McClain told those jurors that at one time 40 percent of cigarette smokers, or three of seven, would become sick. And he tried to convince them that the manufacturers knew it but chose to sell an unsafe product anyway.
"How many does it take to say it's not safe?" he asked. "All of them?"
The mass litigation lawsuit was filed against Philip Morris, Lorillard, R.J. Reynolds, American Tobacco Co. and Brown and Williamson.
McClain said despite improvements and efforts to reduce the chemicals in cigarettes, lung cancer rates among smokers soared.
"We expect manufacturers to make the safest products they can," McClain said. "What a terribly tragic business this is. It has contributed to this terrible legacy and destruction."
McClain said the tobacco companies had the research and test results to show the bad effects of nicotine, tar and other chemicals, and could have made a safer cigarette.
Instead, he said, they cultivated the addiction by making smoking seem exciting and sexy in the 1950s and 60s, promoting it by using cultural icons like the "I Love Lucy" Show, "The Flintstones," John Wayne and Dick Van Dyke.
They concealed the dangers of smoking, he said, even though they were aware of them. Decisions on product development, testing and marketing were made primarily under the advice of their lawyers.
Defense attorneys said that isn't the case.
Jeff Furr, representing R.J. Reynolds, said, "Cigarettes are not defective by design; they are defective by nature. They are really an agricultural product that has been grown in this country for 5,000 years.
"And the industry did make changes to increase their safety," Furr said. "They did reduce the tar and nicotine, and testing was done by reasonable standards."
McClain said while filters were added to cigarettes, testing showed they didn't actually make smoking safer.
"Filters gave the illusion of filter, rather than the fact of filter," he said.
McClain said consumers were unaware of the addictive quality of nicotine. During the trial, he put on witnesses from tobacco companies who said that attempts to reduce nicotine were successful, but when consumers didn't buy the product, the companies continued to produce higher nicotine cigarettes so sales wouldn't be affected.
Furr agreed that consumers didn't want low-nicotine cigarettes, and that was their choice.
"The tobacco industry produced a state-of-the-art, reduced-risk cigarette," Furr said. "Safer cigarettes were rejected by consumers. Everyone agrees there is no such thing as a safe cigarette."
And Furr said the public has been aware of those dangers for a long time.
"Schools taught the dangers of smoking since the 1890s," Furr said. "The Surgeon General's report in 1915 said smoking is dangerous, addictive and leads to disease."
He pointed to more than 60 articles in Readers Digest, beginning in 1924, and reports in the national media that called attention to smoking and cancer risks.
Many people heeded those warnings, Furr said.
"Thirty million smokers quit by 1969," he said. "That would fill Mountaineer Field 500 times."
Jurors are expected to begin deliberating this week. Depending on their verdict, the litigation could extend to a phase two of multiple trials involving individual plaintiff and possible monetary awards.
Contact writer Cheryl Caswell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4832.