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Lawyers gauge tobacco suit talks

Attorneys should decide this week whether mediation has a chance of settling Florida's $1-billion lawsuit over the public cost of tobacco-related illnesses.

A court-appointed mediator opened discussions Tuesday to settle procedural questions before Gov. Lawton Chiles and senior tobacco industry executives meet today for the first formal talks.

"Certainly by Friday we should know whether this is going south," said Robert Montgomery, an attorney for the state.

Mediator David Strawn, a former circuit court judge in Brevard and Seminole counties, agreed that the future of mediation should be known this week after closed-door sessions to be attended by as many as 100 people.

The court-ordered negotiations are unprecedented in the history of tobacco company litigation and will be closely watched by nine states pursuing similar suits to recover tax dollars spent on smokers' Medicaid bills.

Florida sued Philip Morris Co., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and 19 other tobacco companies in February 1995 under a state law that erased some of the legal tactics that had sheltered the tobacco industry from lawsuits.

Chiles, Attorney General Bob Butterworth and high-level tobacco industry officials with "full authority" to commit company money will gather this morning for a joint meeting, Strawn said.

Afterward, each side normally heads to a separate room and lets the mediator do the talking, pursuing areas of agreement and feeling around for flexibility in areas of disagreement.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being an agreement, Montgomery said he guessed the chance of a settlement was 0.5.

In a statement Monday, tobacco companies said they were prepared for mediation, but the release also mentioned prospects for a trial. It said companies were concerned that "tobacco bashing" would make it impossible to seat a fair jury in Palm Beach County.

The court-ordered talks come several months after the nation's fifth-largest cigarette maker, Liggett Group, and five states reached an out-of-court settlement voluntarily.

It was the first time a tobacco company agreed to pay any money in 40 years of smoking-related lawsuits. Liggett will pay about $10-million plus 7.5 percent of its annual profit over the next 25 years to settle claims by Florida, Mississippi, Massachusetts, Louisiana and West Virginia.

Other companies have vowed to fight the suits.

If Florida and cigarette makers agree to keep talking after this week, Strawn said, tentative dates have been proposed for sessions in August and September.