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Cigarette manufacturers remain gagged

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  1. Court Access

    NMU         FLORIDA         Secret Courts         Feb 29, 2000    

Cigarette manufacturers remain gagged

  • A state appellate court has found a gag order issued against the tobacco industry does not violate the First Amendment rights of those involved in tobacco litigation.

A Florida court of appeals panel in Miami on Feb. 24 refused to lift a gag order that has prevented cigarette manufacturers from discussing a pending class action lawsuit.

The appellate court’s unsigned, one paragraph opinion states that the gag order does not violate the manufacturers’ First Amendment rights, noting that “limitations imposed by the court between the media and lawyers and/or litigants are permissible for good cause shown in order to assure a fair trial.”

Members of the tobacco industry, including R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard Tobacco, British American, Brown & Williamson and industry trade groups, had argued that the gag order infringed upon the tobacco industry’s First Amendment rights because members of the industry must be able to pass along information about the litigation to current or potential investors who may otherwise receive only inaccurate or misleading information. Attorneys for the class of plaintiffs responded by saying that the gag order had operated effectively and that the tobacco industry wanted to lift it in order to “spin” its version of what had transpired and was transpiring in the courtroom.

The court of appeals court found that the gag order “is supported by the record evidence and contains a specific finding regarding the necessity for its entry,” distinguishing it from cases that had been cited by the cigarette manufacturers. The court also held that the cigarette manufacturers had not immediately appealed the October 1998 gag order, leading the appellate court to believe that the order had been “either invited or acquiesced to by” the manufacturers. The court also noted that the record of the case does not reflect a change in circumstances that warrants lifting the gag order.

The gag order bars public meetings or press conferences related to the case and was imposed following the attempted distribution by the cigarette manufacturers of a media briefing kit concerning the trial participants, attorneys and underlying facts, according to the Bloomberg news service.

The Miami class action lawsuit concerns allegations that the cigarette manufacturers should be held liable for Florida smokers’ illnesses. The jury found that the manufacturers are liable for the smokers’ deaths and diseases and is now hearing evidence about whether to grant the plaintiffs’ request to award hundreds of billions of dollars in punitive damages. Bloomberg quotes plaintiffs’ attorneys as saying that more than 500,000 Florida smokers eventually could be included in the class of people eligible to receive a portion of the damage award.

(R.J. Reynolds v. Engle)

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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