A $145bn verdict and a “roar of moral outrage”BMJ 2000; 321 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.321.7257.322 (Published 05 August 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:322
Attorney Stanley Rosenblatt has just won the largest damages award in the history of US litigation—against US cigarette companies. He talks to Ron Davis about the verdict and his 10 year legal war with the tobacco industry
He has been described as flamboyant and abrasive. He admits that he “may be overzealous at times,” maybe even nasty or rude. But “when I feel a witness is lying about something, what am I as a lawyer supposed to do?” he asks. “Be polite?”
One thing you can say about Stanley Rosenblatt's style: it produces results. On 14 July Rosenblatt won a $145bn (£97bn) damages verdict against the major US cigarette companies in Howard Engle et al v R J Reynolds et al, a class action lawsuit on behalf of 300000 to 700000 Florida smokers harmed by smoking.
Described by a writer for the Chicago Tribune as a “roar of moral outrage,” it was the largest punitive damages award in the history of US litigation, dwarfing the $5bn award against Exxon Mobil for the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. The Engle verdict came after a trial lasting almost two years. Rosenblatt's other major lawsuit against the tobacco industry was Norma Broin et al v Philip Morris Companies et al, a class action on behalf of flight attendants harmed by secondhand smoke.
In 1997 he agreed to a $350m settlement of the Broin case. Rosenblatt and his wife and law partner, Susan, have been spending virtually all of their time since 1991 fighting the tobacco industry in these two cases. Before they declared war on the cigarette companies, they handled “serious cases of massive personal injury or wrongful death, primarily in the field of product liability and medical malpractice.”
When the Rosenblatts first filed the Broin case, they did not think it would go anywhere. As a large class action, it was virtually unprecedented in scope and complexity. Moreover, as part of a small firm with four lawyers and some “secretaries turned into paralegals,” they were hugely outmatched by the opposition. But Stanley Rosenblatt considered it a “fascinating case,” and the line between good and evil was so clear. In addition, “the idea of taking the depositions of the [chief executive officers] of the tobacco companies was very appealing to me.” So they pressed forward with the Broin case and then the Engle case.
They were warned that these cases could become a “bottomless pit.” Indeed they dragged on for years, with endless motions, appeals, and other delaying tactics by the defendants. “After about the first year we refused to look at our costs,” Rosenblatt said. “We knew we were borrowing a ton of money from banks, and we also knew that if things turned out badly, we would have huge financial problems.”
Beyond the financial strain, the Rosenblatts endured immense personal sacrifice in moving the cases forward. During the Engle trial Stanley Rosenblatt would wake at 5 45 am; pray at the local synagogue; pick up Susan and drive to the law office, usually arriving by 8 am; go to court from 9 30 till about 5 00 (while Susan worked in the office on paperwork and preparing briefing materials); take an evening walk to a nearby library, museum, or park; and then return to the office, where he and Susan would work until midnight or “sometimes later.” They took Saturdays off but worked on Sundays from about 9 00 am to 10 00 pm. The workload left precious little time for their nine children, aged 7 to 19. The Rosenblatts have been “blessed” with children who get along very well with each other, and the older ones help with the younger ones. “But there's no question that we have a certain amount of guilt that we shortchanged the kids during those years,” Stanley Rosenblatt admits, “and we're going to try to make it up to them.”
Rosenblatt has enormous respect for the jurors' own sacrifice. The jurors earned a meagre $30 a day for giving up almost two years of their lives for the Engle trial. But “they certainly in every way rose to the challenge,” listening intently, recognising their civic duty, rarely complaining, and then delivering a thoughtful verdict.
Cross examining the tobacco companies' chief executive officers was a “great challenge,” he says. They are “incredibly polished,” and “they're all charmers,” he acknowledges. But with intense disdain, he adds that “they're basically narrow, shallow people” who don't care one bit “about the incredible pain and suffering and death that their product has caused.”
Interestingly, the Rosenblatts were never intimidated by seeing 30 or 40 tobacco company lawyers across the aisle in the courtroom. They even considered it an advantage because they could make a decision “in a split second,” whereas the defendants “wasted an enormous amount of time” in meetings, “pacifying egos.” When he heard the judge read the jury's verdict, Stanley Rosenblatt had no tears, no lump in his throat, no goose bumps—just “an incredible sense of satisfaction and fulfilment.” The jury “got the big picture,” he noted. “They got the history of this industry, and they said to the American people, ‘We see through these people. They're liars. They do terrible things.’”
What's next for the Rosenblatts? Two urgent matters are before them: defending the Engle verdict against motions and appeals by the cigarette companies; and filing individual lawsuits on behalf of flight attendants, as a follow up to the Broin case, before a 7 September deadline. Then some rest and a one month trip to Israel. Stanley Rosenblatt is not sure whether he'll get involved in new lawsuits on tobacco. And he has no interest in returning to “run of the mill” medical malpractice or product liability cases. “As Martin Luther King said,” he explained, “'I've been to the mountain top.’”
Ron Davis served as an expert witness in the Broin and Engle cases. His employer (the Henry Ford Health System) charged a fee for the services he rendered in these cases, but, as a salaried employee, he earned no personal income for this work. A transcript of this interview appears on the BMJ website.