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DALLAS-State attorneys general and negotiators for the tobacco industry left the bargaining table last week closer to a settlement but still hung up on the ultimate payout.
Meanwhile, a tobacco industry victory in a Florida case involving a 49-year-old smoker who died of cancer is not expected to impact the negotiations.
The industry and attorneys general have indicated they are optimistic a settlement can be reached in the suits brought by states seeking reimbursement of health costs for treating smokers and restrictions on marketing cigarettes to children. Plaintiffs attorneys in a number of other cases also are negotiating with the industry.
"I'm always optimistic as long as reasonable people are willing to talk," said Russ Herman, an attorney for the Castano Litigation Group, which has filed 17 class-action suits against the industry. "We're still talking."
A spokeswoman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. would not comment on the settlement talks, and Philip Morris Cos. referred questions to an outside public relations representative who could not be reached.
Mr. Herman, who was on hand at the talks in Dallas, said figures such as the $400 billion that has been reported regarding industry payouts have been wildly speculative.
"Those figures came out of somebody's smokestack. They were never discussed," Mr. Herman said.
He would not say whether figures that were discussed were higher or lower.
Mr. Herman said the $250,000 cap that the industry has suggested on future claims is unrealistic. "Nobody will accept that."
Cigarette makers have abandoned their call for immunity from future lawsuits in the face of stiff opposition from the attorneys general.
"Any kind of immunity is out of the question," said a spokesman for Texas Attorney General Dan Morales.
A major sticking point in the negotiations, which are expected to resume this week, reportedly centers on how to ensure that citizens retain their right to sue the tobacco industry while establishing some predictability in how much the cigarette makers would have to pay if they lost smoking-related suits.
Limiting damages awards does not sit well with some tobacco industry opponents.
Such a cap would limit plaintiffs' rights to a fair recovery from tobacco companies in smoking lawsuits, said Edward L. Sweda, senior attorney with the Tobacco Products Liability Project based at Northeastern University Law School.
Any industry proposal should be treated with skepticism, Mr. Sweda said.
"One of our principal concerns is the absolute lack of trustworthiness of the tobacco industry over the last 30 to 40 years," he said.
"Even if an agreement is reached, there will be ongoing concern about enforcement of any provisions. There will have to be some plan to deal with the eventuality that tobacco companies will try to run around any restrictions they agree on in settlement talks to get what they want," Mr. Sweda said.
Because any kind of settlement will require congressional approval, it is unlikely that an agreement can be reached in time to forestall the states' lawsuits, Mr. Sweda pointed out. Mississippi's case is scheduled for trial in early July.
R.J. Reynolds said in a statement that its recent victory in the Jacksonville, Fla., suit filed by the estate of smoker Jean Connor shows that juries can reach "reasoned conclusions about cigar-ettes and smoking when given all the facts."
"Our faith in the jury system is very much reaffirmed," said Daniel W. Donahue, R.J. Rey-nolds' senior vp and deputy general counsel-litigation, in the statement.
R.J. Reynolds would not say how the verdict might affect settlement negotiations with the attorneys general. "We couldn't begin to speculate on that," a spokeswoman said.
The verdict "may be a bit of good news" for the industry, said Trey Bobinger, assistant attorney general in Mississippi. "But we certainly don't think it will make any difference in the negotiations."
The spokesman for the Texas attorney general agreed. "That's a minuscule case in the full context of tobacco litigation."
Meanwhile, another suit has been filed against the tobacco industry.
Ohio Attorney General Betty D. Montgomery filed suit late last week in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas. The suit is similar to others seeking recovery of costs for treating smoking-related illnesses and stopping the marketing of cigarettes to children.