NEW YORK - The tobacco industry went on trial Monday, with a trust representing asbestos workers demanding billions in damages for a wave of death and disease allegedly caused by a combination of asbestos and cigarettes.
''It really boils down to a simple phrase: Pay your fair share,'' trust attorney Ed Westbrook told the jury at the opening of the high-stakes trial in federal court in Brooklyn.
The defense countered by accusing the trust of trying to shift blame and costly liabilities from a bankrupt asbestos manufacturer to cigarette makers. The asbestos manufacturer - not the tobacco industry - had a history of deceiving workers about health risks, said Thomas Schroeder, an attorney for R.J. Reynolds.
The trial, expected to last two months, has become the latest battleground for Big Tobacco and those who say it conspired to conceal the dangers of smoking.
It pits a trust made up of blue-collar workers, many of them lung cancer victims, and their heirs against R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris, Brown & Williamson and other tobacco giants.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs say the civil fraud case could result in damages exceeding $3 billion and improve chances for a far-reaching settlement of similar lawsuits brought by insurers and other third parties who want the tobacco industry to share the cost of treating patients with cigarette-related illnesses.
The defense contends the case has no legal basis, noting that federal appeals courts have ruled that third-party plaintiffs are too remote to seek damages.
In a courtroom packed with dozens of lawyers, Westbrook accused the tobacco industry of engaging in a decades-long conspiracy to hide and distort scientific findings that asbestos workers who smoked were five times more likely to get lung disease than the average smoker.
The evidence, the lawyer said, includes an internal Philip Morris document detailing a 1968 meeting in which company researchers acknowledged that cigarettes posed a higher risk to asbestos workers.
Despite that, the companies ''did nothing,'' Westbrook said. ''They sat silent for decades.''
The trust - formed in 1987 after the nation's largest asbestos maker, Johns-Manville Corp., went bankrupt amid an avalanche of lawsuits - has so far paid more than $1 billion in claims to sick workers, Westbrook said. Many of those workers were exposed to the ''lethal synergy'' of tobacco and asbestos, he said.
''The trust has had to pay for the result of that synergy,'' he said. ''It's asking the tobacco companies to pay their fair share.''
Among the witnesses slated to testify are Lorillard chief executive Martin Orlowsky and Dr. Julius Richmond, a surgeon who testified at a landmark Florida trial that the tobacco industry refused to cooperate with government efforts to reduce smoking deaths. The Florida case resulted in a record record-breaking $145 billion verdict.
All of the Brooklyn tobacco cases have been assigned to U.S. District Judge Jack B. Weinstein, a liberal jurist with a reputation for fostering innovative mass-tort litigation. In a flurry of rulings in recent months, Weinstein sought to steer lawyers toward negotiating a nationwide settlement of all tobacco cases.
Weinstein's record includes devising far-reaching settlements for asbestos and Agent Orange litigation. ''The time for bringing a close to tobacco litigation is nigh,'' he wrote in one recent order.