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Big tobacco says future is up to jury

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MIAMI — Tobacco attorneys say a punitive damages award in the millions would snuff out the industry — never mind the billions sought by sick Florida smokers in their landmark class-action case.

"Quite honestly with your verdict you choose the path we can afford to take," Lorillard attorney Ken Reilly told jurors during closing arguments Wednesday.

The 300,000 to 700,000 smokers are asking for up to $196 billion in punitive damages, an amount the nation's five biggest tobacco companies say would break them.

Brown & Williamson Tobacco will complete the industry's closing arguments, and the jury is expected to get the case Friday.

If the jury awarded $75 million, the average smoker would receive about $150 if it were split among 500,000 people. If the jury awarded the $154 billion, the smokers would each receive more than $300,000.

The attorney for Liggett, the smallest corporate defendant, called the smokers' request irresponsible given the company's break with the industry in 1997 to begin settling lawsuits.

"Liggett has shown that a tobacco company can act responsibly," Aaron Marks said.

The six-member jury already has decided the industry makes a deadly, defective product and awarded $12.7 million in compensatory damages to three representative smokers. The jury must now decide how much to award in punitive damages, which are intended to punish and deter misconduct.

The key tobacco defense is that the industry has changed its ways since states began suing in 1994, and that $257 billion in settlements is enough.

The companies argue that they should not be required to pay any more than their combined net worth of $15.3 billion, the difference between their assets and liabilities.

The case is the first smokers' class-action lawsuit to go to trial.

Any verdict will be appealed and could take at least two years to move through Florida's courts.