A judge will hear arguments Friday from tobacco lawyers seeking to move a trial from Lee County, saying publicity generated from stories published in The News-Press has made it impossible for them to get a fair trial.
The stories, which ran in print Sunday and on news-press.com Tuesday, reported on the first of a series of about 150 lawsuits against tobacco companies.
If Judge Sherra Winesett declines to move the trial, Fort Myers attorney Michael Corso asks she postpone it for at least three months.
On Oct. 4, the first case is set to begin in state court, following a 2006 ruling in a $145 billion statewide class action lawsuit that set the groundwork for more than 8,000 ailing smokers and surviving families across Florida to sue for multimillion dollar payouts.
Corso, in a motion filed Tuesday on behalf of R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris USA, called the stories one-sided and said his clients were portrayed in a negative light. He further stated it would be impossible to find jurors in Lee who had not had access to the print articles or online content.
“There is no way to ‘unring’ this bell, particularly since the publicity will be fresh in the minds of prospective jurors and they will have been thinking about the prejudicial material for an entire week without any response from defendants and without any cautionary instructions from court,” Corso wrote.
He further said:
“The article makes the defendant appear callous by representing that defendants have no comment, without mentioning that it would be inappropriate to give comments to the press on the eve of trial,” Corso states.
The News-Press made repeated attempts over several weeks to speak with representatives from the tobacco companies and their attorneys. Most of those requests went unanswered. Two responded with no comment.
Terry Eberle, The News-Press’ executive editor, disagreed with Corso’s argument.
“Where can they find any jury that has not been touched by any stories or facts about tobacco and the cigarette industry?” Eberle asked. “Using their argument, he won’t be able to find a jury anywhere in the United States.