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Landmark smokers' lawsuit heads to Florida jury

MIAMI (AP) -- Six jurors began deciding Monday whether the nation's five biggest cigarette makers and two industry groups are responsible for injuries thousands of smokers claim they suffered because they couldn't quit the habit.

The jury left the courtroom after about 40 minutes of instruction and the reading of the verdict form by Circuit Judge Robert Kaye.The smokers say the tobacco industry made a defective product and conspired to deceive the public and government about smoking-related illnesses.

The industry contends smokers should have known the risks of smoking and are responsible for their own decision to light up. Tobacco officials also deny allegations they purposely made more addictive cigarettes.

"The stakes are enormous," said anti-tobacco activist and Northeastern University law professor Richard Daynard. "They're enormous for the defendants much more so than for the plaintiffs. If they lose this case, there are lots of other states."

If jurors find for the plaintiffs in this initial phase, damages would be set in the next segment, which also would highlight the lives of nine smokers.

Kaye has imposed a gag order barring lawyers and parties from talking about the case.

The awards of lawsuits settled by states have gone into state treasuries. In this case, the smokers themselves are seeking damages.

The smokers are represented by Stanley and Susan Rosenblatt, a husband-and-wife legal team that won a $349 million settlement for flight attendants in a secondhand-smoke case against the same defendants in 1997.

This time, the Rosenblatts used thousands of internal and embarrassing tobacco documents released after Minnesota settled its case against the industry.

The Rosenblatts represent an estimated 500,000 sick Florida smokers or their survivors who are seeking at least $200 billion from Philip Morris Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., the Tobacco Institute., and other cigarette makers and industry groups.

The couple filed the lawsuit in 1994, a jury was chosen last July and opening statements began Oct. 19. Since then the trial has dragged on, interrupted by holidays, long weekends and illness as well as legal challenges and arguments over motions.