Tobacco giants face billion-dollar lawsuit

Sixty lawyers, including some of America's most colourful and skilful, will ask a judge here today to allow them to proceed with a multi-billion-dollar damages claim against the tobacco companies. If allowed to proceed, the case will be the larges t industrial liability suit ever brought to trial. Tens of millions of smokers will be involved and the suit could chart a new legal course for the victims of smoking in Britain and elsewhere.

The lawyers have funded themselves with an initial $5m (£3.3m) in a class action against the seven leading tobacco companies. The main charge is that the tobacco companies have known for years that nicotine is addictive but failed to warn smokers. The l a wyers are seeking to represent any of America's 50 million smokers who feel they are addicted.

The tobacco companies, including Brown & Williamson, whose parent company is the British tobacco corporation BAT Industries, deny the charges and assert, against the consensus of medical and scientific opinion, that nicotine is not addictive. They also claim that the suit is so large as to be "unmanageable".

The companies say all claims by smokers are inherently individual cases - why a person started to smoke, which brand is smoked and how a person reacts to smoking. The companies say all claims should be tried individually by jury.

Even if the judge rules that the case is too unwieldy, the lawyers have pledged to divide the suit into smaller claims. They forecast that the result will be the same: the tobacco companies will not escape this time.

The suit is being brought in very different circumstances from the scores of suits brought against the American tobacco companies since 1954. In previous cases the companies used batteries of lawyers and a bottomless pit of funds from their huge profits to squash their opponents in extended hearings and appeals. The companies have not paid a penny in damages. Now, for the first time, they face well-funded forces with equal, if not superior, courtroom skills.

The tobacco companies also face the specific charge of addiction. Instead of claiming damages for lung cancer, emphysema or heart disease - all of which have been linked to smoking - this suit charges fraud and misrepresentation by the companies. Using thousands of pages of newly discovered tobacco company internal documents, the lawyers claim the companies "have known for decades on the basis of their own long-concealed research and testing that nicotine is addictive".

The lawyers are known as the "Equalisers". They fund cases for disaster victims, and earn huge fees from increasingly higher awards. Recently, 17 of them won $4.25bn for the victims of silicone breast implants and took $1bn in fees.

The suit is registered as Castano v The American Tobacco company, but seven of the largest American tobacco companies are named. The suit is brought on behalf of Peter Castano, a New Orleans lawyer who died of lung cancer last year after a lifetime of smoking, and two other smokers who say they could not quit despite hypnotism, acupuncture and the use of nicotine patches.

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