State wants judge to allow release of tobacco documents

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The state asked a judge Monday to order the release of 39,000 tobacco industry documents, saying they would be some of the most important papers to come out during Minnesota’s tobacco trial.
Ramsey County District Judge Kenneth Fitzpatrick gave the jury President’s Day off so lawyers for both sides could debate a recommendation by a court-appointed special master, Mark Gehan.
Last week, Gehan recommended the release of about 39,000 out of more than 240,000 documents that the industry claims are protected by attorney-client privilege.
Roberta Walburn, who represents the state and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, told the judge the papers Gehan recommended for release are “perhaps the most significant and important documents of this litigation” and that the industry should have turned them over long ago.
“Overwhelmingly, these documents relate to scientific research on smoking and health,” she said.
The state and Blue Cross are suing the major tobacco companies to recover the $1.77 billion they say they’ve spent to treat smoking-related illnesses.
Michael Ciresi, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said outside the courthouse that the new documents will provide further proof that the tobacco companies tried to hide what they knew about the hazards of smoking by funneling material through their lawyers.
Bob Weber, an attorney for R.J. Reynolds who spoke for all the defendants, told Fitzpatrick the process Gehan used to review the documents was flawed because the special master reviewed only selected samples of the documents instead of examining them one by one. He urged the judge to send the matter back to Gehan for further review.
Fitzpatrick was expected to rule soon, but he did not say when.
If Fitzpatrick orders the documents released, the tobacco attorneys want him to stay his order so they can appeal it. But Ms. Walburn said the Minnesota Court of Appeals already has settled the issue of how the documents were reviewed, and another appeal would be frivolous.
“A stay would only guarantee that plaintiffs would not be able to use these documents during trial. … The defendants would win this process by default,” she told the judge.
Weber disputed the state’s interpretation of the Appeals Court’s decision and urged Fitzpatrick to read it again.
Trial testimony was scheduled to resume Tuesday. Jurors were due to see the rest of an edited videotaped deposition by Thomas Osdene, the retired top researcher for Philip Morris. Jurors saw the first 15 minutes of the two-hour tape on Friday, and heard Osdene invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination 11 times.
The 11 defendants include Philip Morris Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., British-American Tobacco Co. Ltd. and Lorillard Tobacco Co. Liggett Group Inc. has settled with the state and is a defendant of Blue Cross only.