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Tobacco lawsuit mediation broken off

Negotiators on Friday called off court-ordered talks aimed at settling Florida's $1-billion lawsuit against cigarette makers for the costs of treating sick smokers.

"Clearly, the tobacco industry never intended to engage in any substantive negotiations," said Gov. Lawton Chiles, who asked a judge to bill the tobacco companies for the state's legal fees and "wasted time."

Barred from discussing the closed-door talks, which a judge ordered in an attempt to avert a trial next year, participants declined to explain why they stopped what they started three days ago.

"No agreements were reached," said Keith Teel, an industry attorney. "No further meetings were scheduled. Right now we don't anticipate them."

Chiles' motion said the state believed "the defendants never intended . . . to mediate in good faith all claims in this case."

It asked the court to order the tobacco companies to pay the state's costs and attorneys' fees, as well as the costs of the mediation.

"It takes both sides to settle," said Dexter Douglass, Chiles' top lawyer.

Ten states have sued tobacco companies and a dozen others are preparing suits seeking to recover the costs of treating Medicaid patients suffering from smoking-related diseases. The court-ordered Florida talks were the nation's first on such a suit.

David Strawn, the court-appointed mediator, refused to concede defeat, saying further talks were possible, even though "the initial meeting has been completed."

"I am not sure when," he said. "I'm going to continue to monitor the case for the court. I would suggest that over the next few months, maybe over the next few weeks, I'll be better able to answer that question."

Strawn also would not comment on details of the talks, saying that Florida law says communications during such mediation sessions are confidential.

"Everyone worked hard at the session," he said. "I am satisfied that both sides certainly made an effort."

But Chiles and tobacco executives didn't budge from the hard lines voiced when more than 70 negotiators began the talks Wednesday at PGA National Resort in Palm Beach Gardens.

"We still feel very, very strongly that the companies have no obligation to pay the state anything," Teel said. "They've done nothing wrong."

He had said before the talks started that cigarette sales are legal in Florida, are regulated by the state and contributed more in state tax revenue than the state has spent in "smoking-attributable Medicaid costs."

Chiles, too, was adamant.

"We will continue to work on the state's case and be fully prepared for trial next summer," he said.

Circuit Judge Harold Cohen in West Palm Beach has set a trial date of Aug. 4, 1997.