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Dan Webb’s recent impassioned plea during closing arguments to the Florida jurors not to impose a “death warrant” on the nation’s tobacco companies obviously came home to haunt him — and his clients. That’s because opposing counsel, Stanley Rosenblatt, cleverly retorted by reminding the same triers of fact that, in his view, the cigarette makers had given thousands of their customers death sentences by selling their goods over the years under allegedly false pretenses. Webb, 54, could not be reached for comment on Monday. But, after the jury’s catastrophic punitive damages award on Friday in a Miami courtroom, the Chicago-based Winston & Strawn rainmaker was clearly more than just a little steamed. The lead defense attorney for mega-conglomerate Philip Morris vowed an appeal. Indeed, the verdict was so humongous, Webb reportedly spluttered, that it has never been seen “in American history” and would “never happen again.” And he insisted nothing, even a more carefully worded closing argument, could have been done to avoid his client’s own self-proclaimed Armageddon. A torrent of reproaches to the trial judge, Robert P. Kaye, spewed forth, too. Mostly, because the jurist, Webb charged, had “truly stacked the deck against us,” allowing the jury to award the billions to “hundreds of thousands of unidentified and unknown smokers” without hearing any significant evidence “whatsoever.” In fact, the jury took about five hours to decide the two-year trial. Rather than impose the $154 billion punitive damages award as the plaintiffs’ lawyers had asked, they imposed “only” a $145 billion tab. The jury had already awarded $12.7 million in compensatory damages to the three smokers who were the name plaintiffs representing the entire class of Florida smokers who had allegedly been victimized by a fraudulent conspiracy to make a deadly and defective product. But few could have predicted an award many times greater than the $5 billion previously notched in the Exxon Valdez environmental catastrophe case — least of all, Webb and the man who had hired him to lead the defense effort, William S. Ohlemeyer, Philip Morris’ vice president and general counsel. And who would have doubted the acclaimed Webb’s ability to pull yet another smoking fish out of the fire, so to speak, having taken over 100 important cases to trial? [A detailed listing of Webb's biggest cases can be viewed by going to www.winston.com and clicking on the icon labeled "Webb trials.pdf."] Webb had, after all, “received international attention” for his successful prosecution of retired Admiral John Poindexter in the Iran-Contra affair. And it was Webb who, as Chicago’s U.S. Attorney, spearheaded the “Operation Greylord” investigations into judicial corruption in Cook County, Illinois. The Loyola University Chicago School of Law graduate also subsequently received national attention for his work as lead trial counsel for General Electric, successfully defending it against criminal price-fixing allegations in Ohio, a case highlighted in the January, 1995 edition of The American Lawyer. Clearly impressed, the tobacco industry hired the trial lawyer to defend it in separate billion-dollar class actions filed in Texas and Washington state as well as Florida. Of course, Webb has not been alone in the tobacco industry’s defense effort. Dozens of lawyers from Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Kansas City, Mo., represented R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard Tobacco Co. And there have been past modest “wins” to point to. For instance, in January, Texas reached a $15.3 billion settlement with the tobacco industry. And the Washington suit was separately settled earlier for about $5 billion as part of a $206 billion accord with 46 states that had joined forces. On Friday, Webb’s tobacco boss absolved him of any fault in the Florida fiasco in a prepared statement. Instead, Ohlemeyer echoed Webb’s “judge run amuck” explanation. “Today’s verdict is the result of a trial that repeatedly ignored the law,” Ohlemeyer stated. “This was not a fair trial. This judge — who is actually a class member himself — ignored the practical, legal and factual considerations that have persuaded other courts across the country to decertify or dismiss 28 similar attempts to try tobacco cases as class actions,” he said.

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