NEW ORLEANS -- After months of delays caused by appeals, a hurricane and the lack of a courtroom, opening arguments are scheduled Tuesday in a class-action lawsuit aimed at making the tobacco industry help Louisiana smokers kick the habit.
The lawsuit, filed in 1996, seeks funding for smoking cessation programs and medical monitoring for still-healthy smokers.
There has been no estimate of what a loss would cost the tobacco industry. However, a smaller class-action suit in West Virginia that sought only medical monitoring carried a potential price tag of hundreds of millions of dollars. The tobacco industry won.
Plaintiffs allege that cigarette-makers are liable because the industry conspired to manipulate the nicotine levels in their products to keep smokers hooked -- a contention the industry denies.
Tobacco companies contend that smoking is a matter of personal choice and that medical programs proposed to help smokers have not been proven to work.
Concentrating on issues
In November, the Louisiana Supreme Court determined the trial's first phase would concentrate on issues including the alleged marketing of cigarettes to children, the alleged manipulation of nicotine levels, manufacturing a dangerous product and whether the industry engaged in fraud and conspiracy.
That decision rejected the industry's request that the first phase of the trial include testimony about individual smokers.
If the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of cigarette-makers on that issue, it could have scuttled the suit as a class-action, said Russ Herman, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
If the industry wins the first phase, the trial is over. If it is found liable, other phases will be held to determine such issues as the responsibility of individual smokers and to set damage payments.
In the West Virginia case, jurors found that routine screening for lung cancer, emphysema and chronic obstructive lung diseases were unnecessary. Instead, they accepted the defense's contention that smokers concerned about their health should just quit.
That was the first lawsuit of its kind to be tried in the United States.
Jury selection in the Louisiana case ended months ago. However, the case has been delayed by industry appeals, the arrival of Hurricane Lili and the lack of a courtroom.
State District Judge Richard Ganucheau, who has presided over the case since it was filed in 1996, retired on Dec. 31. The Supreme Court gave him a temporary appointment to continue working the case, but his successor already has gotten his courtroom, forcing court officials to find another place to meet.
Estimates of how long the trial will run range from six months to over a year. Ganucheau has ordered testimony to run four days a week.