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Justices won't settle West Virginia tobacco trial dispute

The U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to get involved in a West Virginia tobacco case.

Altria Group Inc., the parent company of cigarette maker Philip Morris, wanted the court to declare unconstitutional a multi-phase trial plan developed by West Virginia Circuit Court Judge Arthur Recht.

"This tells me to go ahead and try the case as planned," Recht said.

The trial plan still won't be put to use until at least October, when the Supreme Court is expected to rule on another related tobacco lawsuit, Recht said.

The multi-phase plan, which could serve as a model for how courts across the country try large tobacco cases, starts with a jury determining whether cigarettes are a defective product, as the 750 plaintiffs allege. If the jury agrees with them, it then must set a multiplier for each tobacco company. That multiplier gets applied to awards to individual smokers, based on their brand of choice, in the trial's final phase.

Cigarette makers say the plan is unconstitutional because it determines companies' level of liability before proving any smoker was injured.

"We still believe the trial plan is not constitutional," said Altria spokesman John Sorrells.

The plaintiff's attorney, Pamela Campbell, with the Charleston, W.Va., firm Allen Guthrie McHugh & Thomas, did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Sorrells wouldn't say what Altria's next step would be. In the 10 years since the lawsuit was filed, tobacco companies have filed dozens of appeals. The Supreme Court's decision not to get involved in the trial plan dispute is the latest in a years-long battle between tobacco companies and Recht. The West Virginia Supreme Court approved Recht's plan last year, ending the state-level appeals.

The tobacco case before the U.S. Supreme Court will determine whether a 1969 law pre-empts cigarette-related lawsuits, Recht said.

"The plan I have now is going forward, as soon as we get these other substantive issues resolved" by the U.S. Supreme Court, Recht said.

The high court did not comment on its rejection of Altria's petition.

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