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Jurors scarce for Charleston tobacco litigation

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Closing arguments are scheduled to begin next week in Charleston in civil cases filed on behalf of hundreds of local people against the country's largest tobacco manufacturers.  

Senior Status Judge Arthur Recht of Ohio County is presiding over the mass litigation trial taking place in the old Kanawha County Courthouse.

It's the third time attorneys have attempted to try the case, alleging tobacco injuries to more than 800 plaintiffs.

In 2011 a mistrial resulted during the first trial in Wheeling. A second attempt to seat a jury in Kanawha County failed.

This time, county officials called 8,000 residents as potential jurors and narrowed that list to 800. In mid-April, lawyers for both sides chose 10 from that group and presentation of evidence got underway.

Most of the cases were filed in Kanawha County.  

While it is mass litigation, it is not a class action lawsuit that lumps all of the plaintiffs into one trial.

Injury - in some cases the plaintiffs have died - is alleged to have been caused by Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, American Tobacco Co., Brown and Williamson and Lorillard, all major manufacturers of cigarettes.

The judge said contemporary attitudes about tobacco and smoking make finding impartial jurors a difficult job.

Recht said, "People think there's so much information out there that if you smoke, shame on you.

"On the other side, some people view tobacco companies as the devil incarnate - string them up!" he said.

"This makes it hard to get people to listen to the evidence and decide the case."  

Recht has divided the mass litigation into two phases. This trial marks the first phase and is an attempt to narrow the issues so future juries can tackle the cases in groups of five or six.

Recht said phase one is trying to resolve some of the big issues - that the companies manufacture and sell a defective product not reasonably safe for its intended use; that they breach an express warranty when they say it is safe; and that their conduct was such that it warrants an award of punitive damages.

Those issues will be decided by the Kanawha jurors. After hearing weeks of testimony, attorneys will present their closings Monday.  

 "Once we get answers to those questions, we can begin trying the 800 or so cases," he said.

Recht will appoint about 10 more judges to hear those cases, most likely in the southern counties of the state.

Another aspect of the tobacco litigation, medical monitoring, was tried in Wheeling in 2001.  About 250,000 litigants successfully sued the major tobacco companies to provide that testing.

The trial has attracted attorneys from around the country who are interested in or involved in tobacco litigation.

Former Attorney General Darrell McGraw joined 44 other states in a class action lawsuit against tobacco companies that resulted in a $1.8 billion payout for the state after a settlement in 1996.

Contact writer Cheryl Caswell at cherylc@dailymail.com or 304-348-4832.

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