Firm hauls ABC’s butt into court

Tobacco giant Philip Morris filed a $ 10 billion libel lawsuit against ABC on Thursday, claiming it was defamed by two reports alleging the company spikes its cigarettes with extra nicotine to lure smokers.

The suit stems from two reports on ABC’s “Day One” program alleging the tobacco maker manipulates nicotine level of its cigarettes, which include the brand names Marlboro, Merit and Virginia Slims. The suit was filed in state court in Richmond, Va., the headquarters for Philip Morris’ manufacturing operations.

Defendants are ABC, “Day One” reporter John Martin and producer Walt Bogdanich. The suit seeks $ 5 billion in compensatory damages and $ 5 billion in punitive damages for “false and defamatory statements … made knowingly, recklessly and with malice,” according to Philip Morris.

ABC News spokesman Gary Morgenstein said the company “stands by its reporting on this issue.”

At a D.C. news conference, Philip Morris senior veepee Murray Bring said ABC’s allegations “are not true and ABC knows they are not true.” Philip Morris “does not in any way, shape or form spike its cigarettes with nicotine,” said Bring.

Moreover, Bring claimed there is a “net loss” of 20-25% of the natural levels of nicotine during the making of each cigarette, and that nicotine content has fallen by more than half in the past 40 years.

Philip Morris stock fell 2% after the two “Day One” reports, which aired Feb. 28 and March 7.

Bring said ABC was notified of the alleged inaccuracies in its report after the Feb. 28 broadcast, but took no corrective action in its March 7 report.

Bring claimed that “the hysteria surrounding the issue of tobacco makes us fair game for anything they want to say about us.”

Philip Morris is committed to a free press, said Bring, “but we must draw the line at libel.”

Los Angeles libel attorney Joseph Gabriel called the Philip Morris suit a “very serious case,” but he said the $ 10 billion damage request “is mainly intended to grab the media’s attention.” He predicted Philip Morris will significantly reduce the amount of damages sought by the time the case goes to jury trial.

Gabriel, whose firm represented Carol Burnett in her successful $ 16 million libel case against the National Enquirer, said the trial itself “might be quite boring” because it will likely hinge on complex scientific testimony involving the making of cigarettes.

“This will probably be a battle of expert scientific witnesses,” said Gabriel. The L.A. lawyer called it a “good tactical move” for Philip Morris to file the suit in Richmond, where many of the company’s plants are located.

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