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Plaintiffs respond to bittersweet tobacco victory

June 22, 1997

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ Peter Castano’s death started it all.

A lifetime smoker, he left behind a wife and two young daughters when he died of lung cancer at age 48. His wife sued the tobacco companies, drawing a flurry of lawsuits that led to an unprecedented settlement that will limit cigarette marketing and pay states billions of dollars.

``After the whole emotional roller coaster of his death was over, I realized this cannot continue to happen. There was no way tobacco can continue to addict children,″ Dianne Castano said Saturday.

She and a dozen other plaintiffs from around the nation gathered in New Orleans Saturday to share their personal stories, a day after a $360 billion settlement between the tobacco industry and 40 states.

Each began smoking before they were 18 years old, some as young as nine.

Deania Jackson, who is six months pregnant, said her last cigarette was Friday night. ``The tobacco industry decided to addict us ... this is something that is long overdue.″

Brian Walls, 38, of Drumright, Okla., said he can’t quit despite three heart attacks and bypass surgery. He needs a heart transplant to survive, but, ``as long as I’m smoking, I can’t get a heart.″

Under the settlement, class-action plaintiffs like Mrs. Castano will not receive any money, but the industry will pay for programs to help them quit and monitor their health.

All class-action suits will be settled under the agreement, and the Castano class-action lawsuit was decertified last year.

Mrs. Castano still has an individual lawsuit pending against the industry. Only one individual lawsuit against the tobacco industry, however, has been successful, and that $750,000 award is being appealed.

``The fact that we’ve gotten this far _ I’m ecstatic,″ she said. ``It was real bittersweet ... (but) it took my husband’s death to get it going.″

She endured hours of humiliating depositions from tobacco lawyers, even answering questions about the day her husband died. She didn’t stop: ``I will never go away,″ she told herself then.

In March 1994, attorney Wendell Gauthier and the 64 firms he had assembled from across the country sued the U.S. tobacco companies on behalf of Mrs. Castano, whose husband died in 1993, and other smokers nationwide.

Lawsuits had targeted cigarette manufacturers before, but instead of demanding damages for cigarette-related injuries or deaths, this lawsuit sought damages for addiction _ plus the cost of quitting, restrictions on marketing and regulation of nicotine.

Theirs was a new strategy: tobacco companies were liable because they knew nicotine was addictive, they argued.

The law firms each pitched in between $100,000 and $150,000 to take on an industry that had spent millions to defend itself, and prided itself in never paying out a dime in any of 300 suits brought by smokers.

The class-action Castano suit eventually forced The Liggett Group, one of the smaller tobacco companies, to settle last March, agreeing to pay up to 5 percent of its pre-tax income for the next 25 years to help smokers quit.

Attorneys general in 40 states also sued to recover taxpayer costs for smoking-related illnesses. The two attacks brought the industry to the negotiating table.

Walls, still waiting for his heart transplant, isn’t getting rich from this agreement, but says some things are more important.

``It’s not the money. It’s the help we can give to people,″ he said.

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