The world's largest tobacco company has turned to a Buffalo law firm to help defend itself against a multibillion-dollar lawsuit brought by New York state.
The big downtown firm Phillips, Lytle, Hitchcock, Blaine & Huber has been hired by one of the nation's most embattled companies, Philip Morris, makers of Marlboro and other brands.
The firm is representing Philip Morris in a case brought earlier this year by Attorney General Dennis Vacco that seeks to recover money spent by the state over the years for treating people with smoking-related illnesses. An estimated 30,000 people a year die in New York from tobacco exposure, the state has estimated.
Phillips, Lytle is just one of four local, influential law firms the tobacco industry has hired to help defeat the ever-growing number of lawsuits brought nationwide by states and local governments.
For the firms, representing Big Tobacco could mean sizable fees and a chance to participate in what could be some landmark legal decisions.
The addition of cigarette makers also makes for an interesting client list for some of the firms. All four of the local law firms have some sort of health care institutions as clients. Phillips, Lytle, for example, has represented Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center and some of its lawyers have sat on a host of prominent community organizations, from drug and alcohol prevention groups to business promotion organizations.
Phillips, Lytle declined to comment. Philip Morris officials did not return calls for comment.
"From our standpoint, the issues are incredibly interesting, the positions of the tobacco company have a great deal of legal merit and from that standpoint, there is no dilemma," said Terrence Connors of Connors & Vilardo, a top Buffalo firm hired to defend the Lorillard Tobacco Co. in the tobacco suit filed last year by Erie County.
Clients of Connors' firm include the Catholic Diocese, Children's Hospital and the Buffalo News. Unlike other firms that are part of a consortium of law firms representing tobacco companies, Connors & Vilardo is the sole legal representative for Lorillard in the Erie County case.
The other local firms hired by tobacco interests as representatives in the Erie County case are Gibson, McAskill & Crosby, which is representing Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co., and Cohen, Swados, Wright, Hanifin, Bradford & Brett, which is helping to defend the Tobacco Institute, a Washington trade group.
Officials with those two firms did not return calls for comment.
Connors, a close friend of Mayor Masiello, said his firm was asked to submit proposals from both sides -- Lorillard and Erie County -- in the tobacco suit.
Asked if it felt strange representing health care interests at the
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same time as a tobacco company, Connors, who notes he has never smoked, said, "There's no legal conflict or philosophical conflict at all."
Given what's at stake and the complicated nature of a statewide case, Phillips, Lytle will clearly be the busiest of all the local firms representing tobacco interests. It already has begun seeking what could be at least tens of thousands of pages of documents.
In two separate Freedom of Information requests filed with the state Health Department, the firm is looking to get virtually every scrap of paper the government has on record dealing with tobacco-related issues.
Among the information sought by the firm is everything ever produced relating to the health effects of smoking, a breakdown of lung cancer, emphysema and heart disease cases in New York and the amount of money the state has collected from cigarette taxes. The massive request also is seeking information on health care costs associated with other factors, including everything from gun-related incidents to exposure to toxic waste to obesity.
In showing how it intends to defend itself against the state, the tobacco company also wants all information on how the state may have helped over the years to distribute cigarettes at places such as parks and prisons. The request also seeks to get all studies ever done on smoking-related issues by Roswell Park Cancer Institute.