MIAMI (AP) — The judge in the landmark Florida smokers trial Thursday told the jury it could award punitive damages well beyond the $15.3 billion the nation's five biggest tobacco companies claim is their combined net worth.
The tobacco companies had asked Circuit Judge Robert Kaye to cap punitive damages at that figure, culled from their 1999 annual reports. They disputed the assessments by witnesses for the smokers that the industry could afford to pay as much as $157 billion.
"There's much more to this case than net worth or stockholder equity," the judge told tobacco attorneys. "I tried to explain that to you throughout the entire course of the trial. You guys fought me all the way down the line. I think you're wrong."
For example, Kaye said, trademarks, which represent untold value to cigarette makers but are not part of net worth, can be a factor for the jury.
"We're talking financial resources. Financial resources mean the whole ball of wax," the judge said.
The jury is expected to begin deliberations next week. First, however, the attorney representing 300,000 to 700,000 sick Florida smokers will give closing arguments that are expected to include a specific dollar request to the jury.
The same jury already has ruled the tobacco industry makes deadly, defective products and awarded $12.7 million in compensatory damages to three sick smokers.
The punitive verdict could easily dwarf the American record — $4.8 billion awarded by a jury against General Motors last year in a California car fire. A judge slashed the award to $1.09 billion.
Florida law says a punitive verdict cannot put a company out of business, and judges are required to reduce excessive amounts that would.
The defendants are Philip Morris Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., Lorillard Tobacco Co., Liggett Group Inc. and the industry's defunct Council for Tobacco Research and Tobacco Institute.