Special master rules on tobacco industry documents

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A court official on Tuesday rejected a claim of attorney-client privilege for thousands of secret tobacco industry documents, paving the way for them to be introduced in Minnesota’s tobacco trial.
Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III claimed a “major victory” in the recommendation by Mark Gehan, a court-appointed master who reviewed samples of some 240,000 documents.
Though Gehan recommended that many subgroups of the documents remain sheltered, Humphrey and a tobacco litigation expert said the others are potentially explosive.
“That’s a major victory, not just for Minnesota but for plaintiffs suing tobacco companies in all sorts of litigation,” said Gottlieb, whose group advises plaintiffs in tobacco lawsuits.
Bob Weber, an attorney for R.J. Reynolds, said it was improper for Gehan to make a recommendation based only on samples from each category.
“It was not based on a total reading of all the documents,” Weber said. “I don’t think it’s an accepted procedure to take away attorney-client privilege without looking at the documents.”
Gehan’s recommendations will be considered by Ramsey County District Judge Kenneth Fitzpatrick. There was no indication when Fitzpatrick might rule.
The state and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota are suing the tobacco companies for $1.77 billion spent treating smoking-related illness, plus punitive damages. They allege the industry concealed the dangers of smoking for decades.
Gehan divided the documents into a dozen categories and agreed with tobacco companies on attorney-client privilege in most of those categories, including those that dealt with children, advertising, tobacco additives and communication between attorneys in tobacco lawsuits.
“These are the ‘crown jewels’ of the conspiracy — the documents the industry fought tooth and nail to conceal from the American public,” Humphrey said in a statement. “They will reveal what the industry knew and when they knew it.”
Tobacco plaintiffs believe the documents will show how attorneys controlled and concealed scientific research on tobacco, Gottlieb said.
Meanwhile, testimony continued in the trial Tuesday with the man who controls Liggett Group Inc. back on the stand.
Under cross-examination, Bennett LeBow said his company could end up paying nothing under its settlement of lawsuits with Minnesota and several other states.
The agreement calls for Liggett to pay 25 percent of its pretax income annually to the states.
But Liggett lost money in 1996 and expects to come in about even when the books for 1997 are closed, LeBow said. The company now has about 1.5 percent share of the U.S. cigarette market.
LeBow said Liggett has a negative net worth of about $150 million and its parent company, Miami-based Brooke Group Ltd., a publicly traded company, also has a negative net worth.
And LeBow doesn’t expect a turnaround for the maker of Chesterfield, L&M, Eve and Lark cigarettes in the future. He expects Liggett to be out of business in 20 or 30 years.