When We Get Behind Closed Doors

Kessler calls meeting of Big Tobacco, Justice Department

WASHINGTON -- U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler, overseeing the U.S. Department of Justice's civil racketeering trial against major cigarette makers, called both sides to a closed-door meeting Monday, fueling speculation that settlement talks were in the works, the Associated Press said.

Kessler did not publicly disclose the reason for the meeting. Afterward, attorneys leaving the courthouse would not comment on whether settlement talks were under way.

At least two CEOs were at the meetingMichael Szymanczyk, the head of Philip [image-nocss] Morris USA, and Susan Ivey, the head of Reynolds American. They left separately about half an hour after the two lead Justice Department lawyers on the case.

Attorneys for both companies declined to comment on the meeting. Justice Department lawyers Sharon Eubanks and Stephen Brody also would not comment.

"The proceedings are under seal," said William S. Ohlemeyer, vice president and associate general counsel of Altria Group Inc., the parent company of PM USA.

The government claims cigarette makers conspired for decades to hide the dangers of smoking. The trial, which started last September, concluded earlier this month. At the end of the case, prosecutors asked the judge to require cigarette makers to fund a $10 billion, five-year, stop-smoking programeven though one of the government's own witnesses had proposed a 25-year nationwide smoke cessation program that would have cost the industry $130 billion.

Democratic lawmakers have cried foul, citing news reports that senior level political appointees in the Justice Department pressured career department lawyers on the trial team to slash the program's size.

Justice Department officials said the program was adjusted to fit the strict requirements of the civil racketeering law under which the case was filed in 1999. An appeals court in February barred the government from seeking $280 billion in allegedly ill-gotten tobacco profits.

Separately, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. said it is pleased with the decision by Justice Ute Wolfe Lally of the New York Supreme Court for Nassau County to dismiss an individual smoking and health case brought against the former Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp, successor by merger to The American Tobacco Co.

In the suit, Selma Rosen claimed she became addicted to cigarettes after smoking American's Lucky Strike cigarettes for approximately four years in the late 1950s. Rosen alleged that American failed to warn her of the health risks of smoking and designed an unreasonably dangerous product. Rosen then continued smoking other manufacturers' cigarettes for the next 35 years. Those manufacturers were not included in her suit, however.

"The evidence presented in this case simply did not support the plaintiff's claims," said J. Jeffery Raborn, senior counsel for R.J. Reynolds.

In granting the motion for directed verdict, Lally found the plaintiffs had offered insufficient evidence that Rosen could not quit smoking and that, because of her indifference to warnings she later received regarding the health risks of smoking, an earlier warning about the risks of smoking would not have made any difference on her decision to smoke.

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