A SLIP OF THE tongue may prove costly for the defendants in a multi-million dollar tobacco liability suit.

A Mississippi state judge is expected to rule sometime next month on charges that paid "jury consultants" for American Brands, Inc. improperly spoke to members of the jury in a suit against the company, maker of Pall Mall and Lucky Strike cigarettes.

An unfavorable ruling could force the firm to pay the more than $200,000 in attorneys' fees incurred by the family of Nathan Horton, a lifelong smoker who died of lung cancer last year. The plaintiffs, who are seeking nearly $17 million in damages, have also requested a default judgment in their favor.

The Horton case is only one of more than 125 product liability suits now pending against U.S. tobacco manufacturers. (See MM "Tobacco on Trial," July/August 1987) The suits have focused considerable press attention on the tobacco industry, and on charges that corporate officials tried to conceal early evidence linking smoking with cancer and other diseases.

American Brands budgeted heavily for its defense in the Horton case, forking out thousands of dollars to local residents hired to serve on a "shadow" jury at fees of up to $50 an hour. Such panels allow attorneys to second-guess a real jury's reaction to the evidence presented in the courtroom.

But after the trial ended in a hung jury last January, several jurors claimed that company consultants had spoken with them during the trial. One juror claimed in a sworn statement that a consultant "tried to pay [me] for coffee with a $100 bill ... and said, 'Baby, you can get some of these.'

" In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, American Brands attorney James Upshaw admitted that some of the reported conversations had occurred, but denied any attempts to influence the real jury.

But even that admission may be enough to persuade the judge, according to David Gidmark of the Boston-based Tobacco Products Liability Project. Under Mississippi law, he said, even casual contact during a trial is a civil violation.

"Upshaw says [the consultant] just called the jurors up to be neighborly," Gidmark said. "Well that may end up being awfully expensive ... for American Brands."

The Grass is Always Greener...

Not satisfied with the cut-rate wages in Mexico's border communities, U.S. electronics manufacturers are looking even further south in their attempts to cash in on Mexico's maquiladora program.

Some companies are said to be responding to the Mexican government's efforts to promote the tropical jungles of the Yucatan peninsula as a new frontier for runaway shops.

Under the maquiladora (literally--"golden mills") system, American firms can benefit from Mexico's low wages and taxes while still importing their products into the U.S market duty- free. (See MM "Made in Mexico," February 1987)

Although largely undeveloped, the Yucatan is less than two hours by air from Miami. At least one firm, Florida-based Transformers, Inc., reportedly has set up shop in Merida, the capital of Yucatan state.

While the substandard wages of Juarez and Nuevo Laredo might seem low enough for even the most profit-conscious of entrepreneurs, pay levels in the Yucatan reportedly are even worse--more than a third lower than the 70-cents-an-hour prevailing along the border.

BASF Battle Continues

The Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) has asked the National Labor Relations Board to intervene in its four-year war of attrition with BASF Corporation, the giant West German chemical conglomerate.

The union's move is only the latest legal maneuver since BASF locked some 370 OCAW workers out of its Geismar, La. plant in June 1984.

The corporation declared an end to the lockout last October, but OCAW charges that the firm has refused to take back 110 of the workers, and is unwilling to bargain in good faith over the issue.

Following the lockout, OCAW organized an international campaign against the corporation, attempting to highlight the firm's safety and environmental record. (See MM "Locked Out Workers Go Public to Pressure BASF," March 15, 1985.)

BASF, for its part, filed suit against three OCAW officials last October, claiming they had persuaded corporate insiders to leak proprietary information used by the union in its attempt to organize a boycott. BASF later dropped the suit.

Minor Notes

  • The Coca Cola Company has abandoned its scheme to turn a sizable part of Belize into the world's largest citrus plantation. The company's Minute Maid division announced it will sell the lion's share of the 190,000 acres--nearly 1/9th of Belize--that it purchased for the scheme in 1984.
  • Looking for a corporate tax haven? Think Britain. While the United Kingdom may not be the first country that comes to mind when a CECs fancy turns to tax avoidance, the British government is out to change that.

    After nine years of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher the U.K. now boasts one of the lowest corporate tax rates in Europe. Interested investors are being offered a personal "Briefing on Britain" by the Consulate-General's office in New York.