Losing respect for law - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Losing respect for law

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Posted: Monday, May 26, 2003 11:12 pm | Updated: 2:01 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

A Florida jury a few years back tried to bankrupt the tobacco industry with a $145 billion punitive damage verdict, and now an appeals court has said nothing doing, and for several solid, virtually indisputable reasons.

The main one is that the class-action suit did not begin to show that all of the hundreds of thousands of people in the class were somehow duped into smoking by the tobacco industry. The jury decided such was the case with the three plaintiffs taken to be representative of the class, but the appeals court said it could not be assumed that all smokers in the class were similarly in the industry's clutches.

Another reason, of course, was the outlandish amount of the award, an amount that happens to be prohibited by law. A lawyer for the plaintiffs had told the jury in so many words that it should just ignore the law, and he also indulged in what the appeals court has called "race-based appeals."

The appeals court did not say so, but, even without these justified objections, it's absurd to think the tobacco industry ever knew anything about the effects of smoking that was not publicly available information. Any smoker who has not been locked in a closet all his life knows cigarettes can cause grave harm - that, in fact, they can kill. To then turn around and blame someone else for easily anticipated consequences is to race as fast as legs can carry away from any notion of self-accountability.

There is something more than a little socially destructive in trying to relieve people of responsibility for what they have done to themselves, and there is something hugely destructive of our civil court system in the verdict handed down by the Florida jury. The appeals court decision lessens the damage, but every time a silly verdict occurs, respect for the system goes down a notch. Tort reform, anyone?

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