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Tobacco firms suffer worst legal defeat hid dangers of smoking truth

TOBACCO COMPANIES suffered their worst ever legal defeat yesterday when jurors in Florida ruled that they had conspired to conceal the dangers of smoking cigarettes.

In the first class-action smokers' lawsuit to get to trial and end in a verdict, an estimated 500,000 Floridians and their families sought at least $200bn from tobacco companies. No damages were specified by the jury yesterday, but aside from the financial cost the case could open the floodgates for many more such cases. Damages will be decided later.

The jury decided that cigarette smoking is addictive, that the industry conspired to hide the dangers of smoking, that it sold defective products, was negligent and should be held liable for punitive damages.

The companies concerned were RJ Reynolds, Philip Morris, Lorillard, British American Tobacco's Brown and Williamson and two industry groups. They argued that everybody knew the health risks of smoking. The trial involved eight months of testimony, and it took the jury seven days to reach a verdict

The lawyers for the smokers were husband-and-wife team Stanley and Susan Rosenblatt, who fought and won a settlement for flight attendants exposed to second-hand smoke in 1997. Mr Rosenblatt, a hero of the anti-tobacco movement, said that the tobacco companies had perpetrated "one of the great cons of the 20th century" on unsuspecting smokers. There was a "rampant and cynical long-standing pattern of fraud," he said.

"Nobody forced smokers to smoke," said Robert Heim, an attorney for Philip Morris. "There's overwhelming evidence... that smokers have been aware of the serious health risks of smoking for much, much longer than any of us in this courtroom have been alive."

The Engle case, with nine plaintiffs, was named after a doctor who contracted lung disease. Once damages are decided, then the remaining smokers and their families will be free to file similar suits.

US juries have awarded damages in smoking liability cases only five times - twice in Florida and once in New Jersey, Oregon and California and the Florida and New Jersey verdicts were overturned on appeal.