Soon after lawyers from a tobacco company asked for time to think about a $10 million offer to settle suits filed by thousands of flight attendants, they took the offer off the table.
Attorneys for the flight attendants — who spent years working on smoke-filled planes — say they can prove that Big Tobacco banded together to thwart the deal.
Three tobacco companies offered to help a fourth pay for future judgments and attorneys’ fees if it rejected the settlement, according to a motion filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court this month.
“It is quite an outrageous circumstance that we discovered,” said Miami Beach attorney Marvin Weinstein, who represents many of the flight attendants. “It’s the justice process they’ve interfered with here.”
He said the company that wanted to settle in 2000, Lorillard, was convinced by R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris and Brown & Williamson to forgo the deal. For one thing, it would have given the flight attendants a “war chest” to use to continue fighting against the remaining companies.
In exchange, the three companies would help pay future judgments if Lorillard abandoned the settlement.
Lorillard, R.J. Reynolds and Brown & Williamson did not return messages seeking comment. Philip Morris could not be reached.
Weinstein is demanding the companies pay $30 million — three times what the original settlement would have yielded, or $12,000 for each of the 2,500 flight attendants suing.
It has been nearly two decades since more than 60,000 nonsmoking flight attendants hurt by exposure to second-hand smoke while working in airline cabins filed their class-action lawsuit. The companies settled for more than $300 million years later. The money went to establishing a research foundation.
From there, about 3,000 flight attendants chose to pursue individual cases against the tobacco companies. About 10 cases have gone to trial, with one winning her case.
The deal with Lorillard was worked out after the original settlement.
“We wanted to get at least one tobacco company out of it,” Weinstein said. “We didn’t want to deal with four armies of lawyers.”
But since that fell through, he and other lawyers for the flight attendants have dug up documents showing Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds and Brown & Williamson put their offer to pay portions of future judgments against Lorillard on paper in 2001.
“They actually reduced their conspiracy to writing,” Weinstein said.
More evidence of the tobacco companies’ deal emerged during the deposition of a Lorillard attorney, who asked what occurred as his company weighed the settlement offer.
“I said, `Did you have any conversations with other lawyers of the other defendants?’ and one of the lawyers from the other companies says `Don’t answer that,’ ” Weinstein said.
He is awaiting a date he can present that and other information about a possible backroom deal to a judge.
Flight attendant Suzette Janoff, who worked for American Airlines for 13 years, has asthma, chronic sinusitis and has had surgery because of the smoky cabins in which she attended to airline passengers, she said.
Hers was one of the few cases to go to trial, but it ended in a mistrial after the judge found the tobacco companies mislead the jury. She has put off a second trial, afraid she will have to pay court costs and attorneys fees if she loses.
“To hear that the tobacco companies conspired with each other to avoid any settlement in our cases would not surprise me at all,” said Janoff, who lives in Arizona. “They do whatever they can to avoid paying out a penny, particularly to the flight attendants who had to work in their toxic stew for decades.”