Many of the Liggett Group Inc. documents that the tobacco industry is fighting to keep sealed detail the role that attorneys played in funding and reviewing decades of the industry’s scientific research, according to a log of the papers obtained by The Washington Post.
The log, more than 160 pages of document summaries, includes descriptions of memos, letters and handwritten notes made by Liggett lawyers during meetings of the Committee of Counsel, a group composed of representatives from all the major tobacco companies that collaborated on legal strategy.
Last month, Liggett, the nation’s fifth-largest tobacco company, announced an unprecedented deal in which the company settled lawsuits pending against it by 22 states in exchange for a series of concessions.
The concessions included turning over thousands of pages of internal industry documents describing more than three decades of industry practices.
The log describes hundreds of the documents that Liggett sent to courts around the nation hearing tobacco suits. The documents were sealed pending review by each court.
Few of the documents have been made public, but those suing the industry contend that the log - a kind of table of contents for the broader collection - adds weight to allegations made about the industry in private lawsuits, government initiatives and published reports. A tobacco industry attorney disputed such claims, however.
“Based on what we have heard, it has not occurred to us that they introduce any new evidence into these litigations,” said Daniel Donahue, deputy general counsel for R.J. Reynolds.
There is nothing unusual about an attorney being involved in discussing research, he said. “It would be very unusual for a competent lawyer to not want to understand the science” when representing a company in product liability lawsuits, he said.
Reynolds and the other major tobacco companies have gone to courts across the country to block the public release of the documents, arguing that they are covered by attorney-client privilege. This legal doctrine allows private communications between attorneys and clients to stay that way, but it may be broken under certain circumstances.
Anti-tobacco advocates have long contended that the companies have improperly invoked attorney-client privilege to keep the industry’s secrets, particularly unfavorable scientific research, from becoming public.
If a judge finds that attorneys have engaged in crime or fraud, such as helping the industry conceal knowledge of smoking’s health risks while contending otherwise, they can break the privilege. Judges in at least five states have ordered that the documents be turned over to the courts under seal for review by a judge. In a product liability case against the industry in Laurel, Miss., a judge went further, ordering the release of about 10 documents. The companies are appealing that ruling, and the Mississippi Supreme Court temporarily blocked the release of the disputed documents.
The log obtained by The Post described each document briefly. Many of the summaries used identical language to describe lawyers talking about “pending or anticipated litigation,” “decisions with respect to scientific research” and “funding of scientific research.”
The list shows intense activity surrounding moments of controversy for the industry, with many rounds of meetings leading up to and following the 1964 surgeon general’s report warning of tobacco’s risk, investigations of the industry by the Federal Trade Commission and Congress in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and investigations by the Food and Drug Administration and Congress in the early 1990s.
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