NEW YORK (AP) - A lawsuit filed with little fanfare three years ago has emerged as the latest flash point in the high-stakes legal battle between the tobacco industry and opponents who claim it conspired to conceal the dangers of smoking.
On Monday, attorneys will meet in court to begin picking jurors for a two-month trial pitting a trust fund for sick asbestos workers against R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and other tobacco giants.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs say damages could exceed $3 billion.
The trial is the first out of a backlog of about a dozen tobacco claims filed in federal court in Brooklyn, some filed under civil provisions of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Unlike class-action suits filed by consumers, most of the Brooklyn cases were brought by third parties, including health insurance groups who want Big Tobacco to share the cost of treating patients with cigarette-related illnesses.
In this particular case, the plaintiff is a trust representing blue-collar workers who were exposed to asbestos and their heirs. It was formed in 1988 after the nation's largest asbestos products maker, Johns-Manville Corp., went bankrupt amid an avalanche of suits brought by plaintiffs suffering from lung cancer and other ailments linked to asbestos.
The trustees, much like the plaintiffs in the record $145 billion verdict won by Florida smokers, accuse the tobacco industry of putting profit before public health. They allege cigarette companies are liable because they concealed medical evidence that ''smoking, an activity indisputably dangerous to human health in and of itself, is even more lethal to individuals occupationally exposed to asbestos.''
Jurors could hear opening arguments as early as Dec. 4.
The plaintiffs' evidence includes internal documents they say show that the defendants have known since the 1960s that smoking and asbestos exposure form a ''lethal synergy.''
David Bernick, a Chicago attorney representing Brown & Williamson, said the defense will try to convince jurors that - unlike asbestos makers - the tobacco companies never conspired to hide health risks from workers. He characterized the suit as an ''unjust and unfair'' bid by the trust ''to put more money in the till.''
All of the Brooklyn tobacco cases have been assigned to U.S. District Judge Jack B. Weinstein, whose record includes devising far-reaching settlements for asbestos and Agent Orange litigation. In a flurry of rulings in recent months, Weinstein has sought to steer lawyers toward negotiating a nationwide settlement of all tobacco cases.
''The time for bringing a close to tobacco litigation is nigh,'' he wrote in one recent order.