OLYMPIA- March 31, 1997 - State Attorney General Christine Gregoire said today she will go to court this week to get sensitive tobacco company documents deposited in King County Superior Court. Review of these documents by the court is the first step in their release to the state's legal team.
The documents were promised to Washington and 21 other states in an historic settlement agreement with the Liggett Group which was announced March 20. Liggett agreed to turn over thousands of previously withheld documents which are expected to be extremely helpful in the states' lawsuits against tobacco companies.
"The documents contain potentially damaging evidence that can be used to strengthen our lawsuit," Gregoire said. Courts in Florida, Illinois, Texas and Mississippi already have ordered the documents to be delivered under seal for their review.
"One of the goals of our lawsuit is to get the tobacco companies to finally tell the truth," Gregoire said. "The public has been denied its right to know for too long."
As part of the settlement with the states, Liggett chief executive Bennett LeBow admitted what tobacco companies have denied all along. LeBow admitted smoking causes heart disease and cancer, that nicotine is addictive and that tobacco companies market to children.
Tobacco companies have been resisting release of the documents. "Fortunately, courts around the country have been agreeing with us that these documents need to be open for public review," said Gregoire.
"Cigarette smoking is the most deadly, and preventable, cause of disease and premature death in America," Gregoire said. "I suspect these documents will reveal that tobacco companies have known this all along and have refused to admit it to the American public--even under oath to a committee of Congress."
Under the settlement agreement Liggett is making available all of its documents and records that are relevant to Washington's lawsuit--including so-called "privileged" documents which were previously hidden from the public under attorney-client and attorney work product protections.
Liggett has about 175 boxes of non-privileged documents in its New York offices waiting for a review by states' attorneys. A packet of the most relevant of those documents has been shipped to Washington state and is expected to arrive today.
In addition, Gregoire said Liggett has identified 11 of what it considers to be the most important privileged documents in its files. A Mississippi trial court has ordered these documents turned over to the plaintiffs. Their state supreme court will hear the tobacco companies' appeal next week.
This week's King County Superior Court hearing on Thursday, April 3, at 2 p.m. will be the initial step in securing release of approximately six boxes of privileged documents. The state will ask Judge George Finkle to permit Liggett to deposit into court these documents for his review. If the Judge grants the request, the state will go back to court the following week to ask the documents be released so they can be used in the state's litigation.
In one other development, Judge Finkle ordered tobacco companies to provide important document indexes which will save the state a substantial amount of time and expense in locating other key information and evidence. "The industry has buried this information in a warehouse of millions of documents and this index gives us the tool we need to find that important 'needle in the haystack'," Gregoire said. "It provides a long awaited road map into the hidden world of the tobacco cartel."
Liggett already has shipped documents to Illinois, Mississippi, Florida and Texas . They also have sent documents to the Department of Justice which is investigating whether the industry illegally withheld information from government agencies and lied about health risks of smoking.