US Tobacco Wants Suit Tossed
MONDAY, MAY 15, 2000
MARIANAS VARIETY NEWS AND VIEWS
By Giff Johnston
For the Variety
MAJURO – Charging that Marshall Islands High Court Judge H. Dee Johnson is helping the Marshall Islands government in its efforts to "extort huge sums of money" from the U.S. tobacco industry, four American tobacco firms filed an appeal seeking Supreme Court intervention to call a halt to the high-stakes court battle.
"The High Court's plainly erroneous orders refusing to put a stop to this legally meritless lawsuit have the clear and unmistakable effect of assisting the government in its efforts to abuse the judicial process so as to extort a settlement of claims in what the government now alleges to be a $20 billion case," said the motion filed for Philip Morris Inc., Philip Morris Products, Inc., Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corp. and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
The tobacco companies are seeking a writ of mandamus – or order – from the Supreme Court instructing the High Court to:
-Dismiss all common law claims by the government against the tobacco companies;
-prohibit the government from continuing to use 1997 and 1998 amendments to the Consumer Protection Law and Health Fund Law, respectively, on a retroactive basis regarding the conduct of the tobacco companies prior to the amendments coming into effect;
-strike from the government's complaint a paragraph in which the government is seeking about $100-million for the construction of hospitals throughout the country.
The U.S. companies said "immediate intervention is also required to preserve the appearance of impartiality of this nation's judiciary in a closely watched case in which the government is seeking a massive monetary recovery to itself in its own court, and which tests the independence of the Marshall Island's judiciary."
But attorneys for the Marshall Islands said the American tobacco industry "is acting like a bully" in trying to get the country's Supreme Court to throw out the government's lawsuit. "Tobacco companies took profits out of the Marshalls and left the costs here," Don Howarth, a Los Angeles-based attorney for the Marshall Islands said in Majuro this week. "It is time for them to pay the costs."
Howarth's partner, attorney Suzelle Smith, said the tobacco industry's strategy is to "drown us (with motions) before we get to the trial so we can't get to the merits of the case." She described the tobacco industry's motion to the Supreme Court as "a desperation motion" that is trying to "short-circuit the legal process and deny the government its day in court."
Howarth said the U.S. companies are trying to deny the Marshall Islands what all the states in the U.S. got – their day in court, which in the U.S. resulted in a more than $200 billion settlement.
"They can get a fair trial here," Howarth said. "But they don't want it."
The tobacco companies complained to the Supreme Court about Judge Johnson's:
-dismissal of several of their motions without providing any legal basis or reasoning for the rulings; and
- Schedule leading up to a planned Jan, 15, 2001 trial, which includes a plan for all motions to be dealt with during a November status conference.
Johnson, an American who has worked in the Marshalls for one year, is preventing the tobacco companies from being "afforded a full and fair hearing," the motion claims. The court has set a pretrial schedule "that sets the government's claims on for trial while virtually ensuring that petitioners" legal arguments will get no serious consideration, particularly those arguments that would dispose of the government's claims in their entirety."
The tobacco companies' motion said that the Marshall Islands is seeking "an astonishing award of almost $20 billion" which translates into $400,000 per resident – and juror – in this nation of 51,000. The Marshall Islands has requested a jury trial, which the tobacco companies say is the first time for a civil jury trial in the history of the Marshalls.