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Tobacco firm wins death suit

Jacksonville (Reuters) -In a big win for the tobacco industry after a series of setbacks, a Florida jury yesterday cleared RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co of responsibility for the death of a smoker who had died of lung cancer.

The jury deliberated for two days before deciding Reynolds had neither acted negligently nor made a dangerous, defective product that caused the death of Jean Connor, who smoked heavily from the time she was a teenager and died in 1995, aged 49.

The verdict came as cigarette- makers and state officials resumed talks aimed at settling litigation against the industry and resolving other issues, though state attorney-generals said the verdict would not affect the talks.

The plaintiff, Dana Raulerson, who filed the wrongful- death lawsuit, was stunned by the verdict but said it had not changed her feeling that the tobacco industry was peddling a "legal killer. It's like watching her die all over again. And there's still an industry that doesn't care she's dead because of their product," she said. "I don't know how they sleep at night."

With the verdict, Reynolds, a unit of RJR Nabisco Holdings Corp, avoided the imposition of punitive damages. Had the jury found Reynolds negligent and awarded punitive damages, it would have marked the first time such an award had been made in any US tobacco litigation case.

Melissa Ronan, a lawyer with Litigation Analysis for Wall Street, a company that advises investment firms, said the verdict would help even the odds for the industry in settlement talks after several serious setbacks. But the Massachusetts Attorney-General, Scott Harshbarger, an outspoken industry critic, said that the verdict was not a major setback and that state officials would continue their efforts.

"For Big Tobacco, this is just one victory in a losing battle. This verdict bears absolutely no relevance to the pending state lawsuits, which are not based on the claims of individuals. In short, the industry still has us to worry about."