Sun, May 08, 2005 - Page 11 News List

Judges hand victory to tobacco industry in class-action suit

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

A panel of federal appeals-court judges in Manhattan handed the tobacco industry a victory on Friday by striking down a sweeping proposal by a judge in Brooklyn to organize a single high-stakes trial that might have subjected the industry to billions of dollars in damages.

Three judges of the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously against the proposal of Judge Jack Weinstein of Federal District Court in Brooklyn, saying his plan was flawed for technical reasons.

The proposal was returned to Weinstein's court.

Whether the high-stakes trial would ever reach a courtroom turned on technical legal issues such as who had the right to sue and enter what is known as a class action, and whether the proceeding was fundamentally fair by placing a limit on potential damages.

In September 2002, Weinstein proposed presiding over a national trial that would not assess individual claims for compensation, but would decide only whether the cigarette companies should be assessed punitive damages because of the harm done to smokers and their survivors.

A single industry fund to pay potential punitive damages would be established. The class for the trial, with some exceptions, would be all current and former smokers of the defendant companies' cigarettes since April 1993.

In their 37-page ruling released on Friday, the three appeals court judges found flaws in Weinstein's proposal, especially in the membership of the class and the size of potential damages.

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