Court Victory For Big Tobacco

Three of the nation's largest tobacco companies were cleared Monday of liability in the deaths of three smokers whose families claimed the companies' cigarettes were responsible.

The Shelby County, Tennessee Circuit Court jury returned its verdict during the fourth day of deliberations in the case against Philip Morris Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp.

James Johnson, a lawyer for R.J. Reynolds, said he was pleased that after four months of testimony the jury "conscientiously applied the law" and determined that "somebody who smokes and being fully aware of the risks of smoking ought not collect money."

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of Bobby Newcomb, a retired trucker who died last year at 64; Florence Bruch, a 63-year-old homemaker who died in 1996; and James Karney, a retired trucker who died in 1996 at age 71. All had lung cancer.

The smokers' families claimed the companies knowingly sold a dangerous product and tried to cover up the risks. They were seeking more than $431,000 for medical bills and unspecified punitive damages that could have reached into the millions of dollars.

In similar cases this year a San Francisco woman with inoperable lung cancer was awarded $26.5 million and the family of a Portland, Ore., man who died of lung cancer was awarded $81 million.

Curtis Johnson Jr., a lawyer for the plaintiffs, expressed disappointment but vowed to continue taking the tobacco companies to court. "This is one case, this is one verdict and we'll be back again," he said.

Three lawsuits were filed by the smokers' families but were consolidated for trial by Judge D'Army Bailey.