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Trial of tobacco lawsuit nears end after 8 months

Myron Levin Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON – More than eight months after it started, the trial of the Justice Department’s civil case against the tobacco industry enters its final lap today with closing arguments on whether the leading cigarette makers are guilty of fraud and racketeering.

The immense case, which already has cost the two sides hundreds of millions of dollars, has been described as the largest civil suit ever brought under the federal anti-racketeering statute known as RICO.

A federal appeals court in February wiped out what was, for the industry, the most worrisome part of the lawsuit: a government demand that the companies be required to forfeit $280 billion in allegedly ill-gotten profits.

The stakes remain high. Despite the industry’s dismal reputation, it is eager to avoid the stigma of a racketeering verdict – which would be the first such judgment against a major industry.

A loss also could force the companies to spend billions of dollars on remedial measures sought by the Justice Department. These include a massive smoking cessation program that would cost the companies up to $130 billion over 25 years.

A lot is riding on the verdict for the Justice Department as well, where lawyers are eager to vindicate their longtime pursuit of the industry.

For the industry, avoiding a costly verdict would put a major challenge out of the way – though its legal problems would not be over: Philip Morris is appealing a $10.1 billion verdict in an Illinois class-action suit involving deceptive marketing of low-tar cigarettes. In Florida, plaintiffs in a class action are seeking to reinstate a $144.8 billion punitive-damages award that was reversed by a state appeals court.

In the largest series of tobacco suits resolved to date, the industry agreed in 1998 to pay $246 billion to settle claims by the states. The tobacco industry has both won and lost smaller cases brought by individuals. With Justice Department and industry lawyers allotted six-and-a-half hours apiece, summations in the racketeering case are expected to last into Thursday.

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