ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Attorneys began scrutinizing prospective jurors Tuesday as Minnesota’s lawsuit against the tobacco industry opened with no settlement in sight.
Ramsey County District Judge Kenneth Fitzpatrick questioned the first 25 of a pool of 180 people about their knowledge of the companies, state agencies and other groups involved in the case.
Fitzpatrick also asked whether they, their friends or relatives work for any of the companies or agencies and whether they have any particular knowledge about the defendants, plaintiffs or possible witnesses.
One woman said she had sold a pair of eyeglasses to Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson four years ago. It would not affect her ability to be impartial, she said.
Another said he had a brother and two sisters who are lawyers.
“Coming from a family of working lawyers, is there anything that might make you think you know more than the judge?” Fitzpatrick asked.
Laughter broke out in the courtroom as the man said there was nothing.
When asked if there was any reason panelists would not be able to set aside preconceived notions and render a fair verdict, three people raised their hands.
“My mother-in-law is dying of a smoking-related illness,” one potential juror told the judge.
“I’m a smoker. I want to quit. I’ve tried,” another said.
Jury selection was expected to take the remainder of the week.
If opening statements take place Monday — Fitzpatrick said they would come no sooner — Minnesota’s lawsuit will have gone farther than any of the 40 state lawsuits against the tobacco industry. Mississippi, Florida and Texas settled their suits for a combined $29.7 billion; only Florida made it as far as jury selection.
Neither side in the Minnesota case has confirmed whether settlement talks have even taken place. State Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III took a hard line when Texas’ settlement was announced last week, saying he was “drawing a line in the snow” and would not compromise.
Tobacco industry attorneys sidestepped questions about a possible settlement on Monday at a pretrial briefing for the media.
Humphrey has, however, outlined what he would require in a settlement: release of damaging documents, protection for children from smoking and full payment of damages. He has refused to give a monetary amount.
The state, joined by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, wants to recover $1.75 billion in medical costs for treating smoking-related illnesses. They also seek unspecified punitive damages, claiming cigarette makers conspired to suppress research on the effects of smoking, tried to hook kids and knew for decades nicotine was addictive.
The tobacco companies argue that the connection between smoking and health has been known since at least the early 1960s and smokers have chosen to smoke.