Trial date on tobacco put at 2003; But federal judge casts doubt on whether U.S. suit goes that far; Settlement is possible; Government is seeking billions it spent on smoking illnesses; Lawsuits


WASHINGTON -- The federal judge overseeing the Justice Department's lawsuit against the tobacco industry estimated yesterday that it could take more than three years for the case to reach a trial.

U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler said that "with a lot of work and effort" by herself and by lawyers, the trial could start in January 2003.

"If it's going to go, that's the time frame," she said at a court hearing -- the first since the case was filed in September.

The judge said that there was "a big if" as to whether the case would go to trial.

Kessler did not spell out what might end the case without a trial, but she did mention the possibilities of a settlement as well as the industry's forthcoming request that she dismiss the case outright.

She will hold a hearing on the industry's dismissal motion April 24.

The long process of the lawsuit could keep legal doubts hovering over the industry -- and its performance in the stock market -- for many months.

The Justice Department seeks to recover much of the $20 billion spent by the federal government each year on smoking-related illnesses.

The civil action takes the place of a potential criminal lawsuit against the cigarette manufacturers. A criminal inquiry has been shut down.

In the lawsuit, the department contends that the industry is legally to blame for nearly five decades of harm to the health of Americans and for billions of dollars in financial injury to the federal treasury.

The suit named Philip Morris Inc.; Philip Morris Companies Inc.; R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.; American Tobacco Co.; Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp.; British-American Tobacco PLC; British-American Tobacco (Investments) Ltd.; Lorillard Tobacco Co. Inc.; Liggett and Myers Inc.; the Council for Tobacco Research U.S.A. Inc.; and the Tobacco Institute Inc.

The industry is expected to argue that the Justice Department's case is built on novel theories that have no legal weight. In addition, the companies are likely to contend that the government cannot link any harm done to the treasury to actions taken by the industry.

With the long timetable sketched out by Kessler yesterday, it is clear that the case -- if not dismissed next year -- will run on into the administration of the next president.

That raises the prospect that the next administration might want to abandon the case -- an action that would need Kessler's approval.

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