Today's Papers

Full Court Pressure

The Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Washington Post all lead with yesterday’s monumental decision by a Miami-Dade County jury ordering the tobacco industry to pay $145 billion in punitive damages to approximately 500,000 Florida smokers who suffer or died from diseases caused by cigarettes. The case is the first class-action lawsuit on behalf of sick smokers to come to trial, reports the WP, not to mention the largest damage award in United States history. The WP off-leads with the conviction of prominent Annapolis lawyer-lobbyist Gerard E. Evans on charges of defrauding his clients of more than $400,000, while a Maryland state legislator was acquitted of five fraud charges in the same case. The LAT off-leads with yet another courtroom drama: a federal jury’s announcement from Waco, Texas, yesterday that federal agents were not responsible for the deaths of 80 Branch Davidians there in 1993. Although the ruling is not final until a federal judge gives his verdict next month, the jury’s decision in the $675 million wrongful death lawsuit brought by surviving sect members and families is regarded as final, said the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, who is himself considering dropping the case, reports the WP on its front. For its off-lead, the NYT goes with the Senate’s vote yesterday to repeal the federal estate tax, which President Clinton has already promised to veto. On the heels of the House’s passage of the same legislation in June, the measure is regarded by Democrats as a “hugely expensive giveaway to the rich,” according to the NYT, while tax-cutting Republicans have already elevated it to the status of fodder for the presidential campaign.

The five tobacco companies involved in the two-year trial–including Philip Morris and R J. Reynolds–estimated their combined net worth at $15 billion. While the companies appeal the ruling as they have vowed to do, their own initial financial exposure may be puny, not punitive, reports the NYT. Since the Florida Legislature passed a law last year with this case in mind, each company may only be required to post an initial bond of $100 million. That law may not apply in this case, however, since the suit was filed in 1994 and the law was passed in 1999. The NYT also points out that Florida law prevents companies from going bankrupt due to a damage award–$73.96 billion for Philip Morris, if the company pays according to yesterday’s verdict. This money would be added to the tab started by the tobacco industry in 1998 when it agreed to pay the states $246 billion over 25 years. The organization of state attorneys general has already hired bankruptcy lawyers to protect their settlements if the tobacco companies file for protection from creditors. All three papers quote lawyers and leaders on various sides of the issue who predict that, despite the ruling, the tobacco companies will never have to pay because the case will be thrown out on appeal.

After three weeks of testimony, it took only two and a half hours for a federal jury in Waco yesterday to announce that federal agents were found to be not responsible for the deaths of 80 Branch Davidians in 1993. The $675 million suit was filed by more than 120 relatives of the sect members who died in the standoff against federal law enforcement officials, as well as a handful of survivors. According to the LAT, government attorneys hope that the ruling will convince Americans that David Koresh, the sect’s leader, was responsible for the deaths–not the U.S. government. The judge presiding over the case will not make his sans-jury ruling until at least next month, after he hears another aspect of the case.

Fronting a portrait of a free-market Vietnam, the WP reports on Thursday’s U.S-Vietnam trade agreement. The agreement mandates an economic makeover in Vietnam, from reducing tariffs on goods to allowing foreign businesses to participate in Vietnamese telecommunications and banking. Once the country begins exporting products to the U.S., Vietnamese business execs and analysts predict that Communist Party control over the national economy will decrease, foreign investment will increase, and hundreds of thousands of new jobs will be created–big news in a country where the average citizen earns less than a dollar a day, reports the WP.

The NYT fronts the news that at Bastille Day celebrations in Paris yesterday, the Austrian ambassador shared the reviewing stand with French President Jacques Chirac–just one more step in the road to lifting sanctions imposed on Austria five months ago by the European Union to protest the inclusion of right-wingers in the Austrian government. If Austria’s human rights record passes an examination by “a panel of experts,” reports the NYT, the sanctions will be lifted. Although Austrian officials claimed earlier this month that they would use their veto power to block the EU’s progress and expansion, Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel assured they would do nothing of the sort. “Words such as ‘threats,’ ‘blackmail’ and ‘veto’ should be deleted from the vocabulary,” Mr. Schüssel said.