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Tobacco trial opens in St. Louis

Donna Walter//January 31, 2011

Tobacco trial opens in St. Louis

Donna Walter//January 31, 2011

The 37 hospitals suing tobacco companies are trying to get reimbursed for treating dog bites, car accidents and broken bones — ailments that have nothing to do with smoking, a defense attorney said on the first day of a long-awaited trial.

The trial, expected to last a record six months, began Monday morning.

The hospitals are suing 11 defendants — six cigarette makers and their parent companies — to recoup health care costs incurred treating smoking-related illnesses or complications of people who could not pay.

The defendants say the injuries alleged by the hospitals are too indirect or remote to support a recovery.

Thompson Coburn’s Booker Shaw began a brief preview of the defendants’ case around 3 p.m., followed by Diane Sullivan, lead counsel for Philip Morris USA and its parent company, Altria Group Inc. She attacked the plaintiffs’ claim for damages.

“They think they can get a jury to believe any kind of case against the tobacco company — even without any proof,” Sullivan said.

St. Louis lawyer Ken Brostron, of Lashly & Baer, started the trial with the plaintiffs’ opening statement.

“The defendants in this case … are in business to make money, and they make money by making and selling a product that they know is addictive … and that they know makes people sick,” Brostron said.

Brostron cited a slew of statistics comparing the effects of smoking to those of alcohol. He said 85 percent of people are addicted to nicotine but just 15 percent are addicted to alcohol. And 440,000 people die every year from smoking, while just 70,000 die each year from alcohol-related causes — including drunken driving and disease, he said.

“The evidence will show that these products — cigarettes — are defective and unreasonably dangerous,” he said.

This case is not about personal choice, and it’s not about blaming a company because an individual misused its product, he said, citing as an example blaming Anheuser-Busch for a driver’s car accident because the driver had been drinking the company’s beer.

What the case is about is the unreimbursed cost of health care, he said.

“All hospitals’ sole business and purpose is to provide health care, and if there is money left over at the end of the year, it goes back into patient services,” he said, reminding the jurors that hospitals can go out of business.

The hospitals’ lawyer spent much time previewing some of the exhibits that will be presented during the course of the trial — including internal documents of cigarette manufacturers that detail what the companies knew about nicotine and the health risks of smoking and when they knew it.

The defendants will argue that “everybody knows” smoking is risky, Brostron said. But, he added, not everybody knows that cigarette manufacturers — and some of the defendants — add ammonia to their product. Sugar and menthol are other additives used to make smoking a “smoother” experience, he said.

In addition, he said, Liggett is the only defendant to put on its product a warning that smoking is addictive.

Among the topics of the memos Brostron read from are: targeting teenagers to increase the adult customer base, maximizing the addictive nature of cigarettes and attacking scientific evidence linking smoking to cancer.

Each side was given four hours to deliver opening statements.

The case is St. Louis et al. v. American Tobacco et al., 22982-09652-01.

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