The tobacco industry agreed Friday to pay $300 million to settle a secondhand-smoke lawsuit brought by 60,000 flight attendants.
The settlement includes establishment of a research foundation on diseases blamed on cigarettes.
The attendants had sued for $5 billion, claiming they developed lung, heart and other diseases by breathing other people’s smoke on airliners. The trial began four months ago.
The settlement marks the first time the tobacco industry agreed to pay damages in a secondhand-smoke lawsuit.
“It’s truly significant,” said Susan Rosenblatt, who along with her husband, Stanley, represented the flight attendants. “I would love to have tobacco banned. That’s not within our power.”
The attendants get no money under the settlement, but they are now free to sue individually under newly agreedon terms that could make it far easier for them to file a claim and win.
The industry admitted no wrongdoing and did not concede the central allegations in the lawsuit - that secondhand smoke is deadly and that the industry engaged in a 40-year cover-up of the dangers of cigarettes.
Under the settlement, the nation’s four biggest cigarette makers - Philip Morris Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Brown & Williamson Tobacco and Lorillard Inc. - will finance the Broin Research Foundation to study cures for illnesses caused by smoke and to develop early-detection methods.
“Radiant? I’m happy today,” said the lead plaintiff, Norma Broin, a 42-year-old American Airlines flight attendant from Stafford, Va. She was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1989, but her disease is in remission.
Broin said that she was disappointed there was no actual admission of wrongdoing. But she said the settlement looks like one anyway in the court of public opinion.
“The goal was to expose the deception and the fraud,” she said.
The attendants claimed that passengers’ smoke caused lung cancer, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic bronchitis, chronic sinusitis, heart disease and an assortment of other ailments.
Broin was picked as the plaintiff because her own exposure to cigarette smoke was almost nil before she became a flight attendant at age 21.
Raised a Mormon in Utah, she never smoked, and neither did her parents. She also never drank alcohol and consumed very little caffeine - products the tobacco industry often says are responsible for illnesses among smokers.
Experts said the deal could open the floodgates to lawsuits unless the industry can short-circuit the claims under the proposed $368 billion national settlement that is awaiting approval from Congress and President Clinton.
“This might well open the door to a lot of other lawsuits by other workers that are traditionally cooped up … who’ve had to have a constant diet of secondhand smoke,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of law at Georgetown University.
In a statement, cigarette makers said the agreement was “a common-sense approach to resolving the class-action aspects of the case in a way that is consistent with the much broader legislation resolution now pending before Congress.”
The industry will pay $100 million a year starting next April, with company amounts based on market share. The attendants’ attorneys will be paid an additional $49 million.
Under the settlement, the industry waived statutes of limitations requiring lawsuits to be filed within one to four years of the discovery of an illness. Many attendants would have otherwise lost their right to sue.
The settlement also shifts the burden of proof when it comes to showing that secondhand smoke causes disease. Attendants with certain illnesses will not be required to prove that smoke caused the disease. The tobacco industry must prove smoke didn’t cause the disease.
Because the plaintiffs were non-smokers, the industry was unable to use what has been its strongest defense: that the smoker assumes the risk when he or she starts smoking.