Tuesday, March 27, 2007

We Who Labor Here Seek Only Truth: A Tribute to Frank and Margaret Amodeo

I first met Frank and Margaret Amodeo in Courtroom 6-1 in the Miami-Dade County federal district court in Miami. I was an expert witness in the Engle case, a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of all Florida smokers, seeking damages for the harms caused to them from tobacco products, based in part on the contention that the tobacco companies enticed them to start smoking as kids through their advertising practices, addicted them to cigarettes by carefully controlling the nicotine levels, undermined public health messages about the hazards of smoking, and lied to or misled the public about the addictiveness and toxicity of cigarettes.

I knew quite a bit about Frank before I met him. After all, I had read the transcript of his deposition. So I knew that Frank was a courageous cancer survivor who, as one of three class representatives whose cases were being heard in phase II of the Engle trial, was leading the battle for justice against the tobacco companies on behalf of all smokers and on behalf of the entire public.

What I didn't know when I first entered the courtroom, but what I have learned ever since, is what wonderful, amazing, courageous, and heroic people Frank and Margaret Amodeo are. Wonderful in their love and appreciation of life, children, family, and all the little things that make each day special. Amazing in their tenacity and resilience in battling Frank's cancer and his resulting disabilities. Courageous not only in their personal fight against cancer and its effects but in their public fight against Big Tobacco. Heroic in their devotion to a cause they believed in, to a fight they were willing to fight to the end, not merely for themselves, but for all smokers and all Americans. For justice and for the principles of fairness and truth.

It was Frank and Margaret who showed me in a very real way what I was personally fighting for. It was Frank and Margaret who showed me why it was that I went to battle against the leading public health and anti-smoking groups in the nation in order to preserve and protect the rights of citizens to pursue justice against corporations whose products cause them disease, disability, and death. You meet Frank and Margaret and you don't dare, dare interfere with the legal rights of American citizens any more. Because you realize what the American system of justice is all about.

Back in 1997, a coalition of heath and anti-smoking groups, led by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Cancer Society, and the American Heart Association attempted to get through Congress a bill that would have restricted tobacco advertising and extracted billions of dollars from the tobacco companies, but at the expense of trading away the legal rights of American citizens to hold the companies accountable for injuries they may have suffered -- the legal rights of citizens to sue the tobacco companies would have been severely limited. The tobacco companies would have been provided with legal immunity.

For my efforts to try to protect the legal rights of people like Frank and Margaret Amodeo, I was attacked by many of my own colleagues (read Michael Pertschuk's book Smoke in Their Eyes if you want to see some of the things that were said about me).

But meeting Frank and Margaret made it all worthwhile. It reminded me of what I was fighting for. It made me realize how right I was in my conviction that the pursuit of truth and justice is to be sacrificed at the peril of the integrity of our nation. That no amount of money in the world is worth trading away the principles of justice upon which this country was founded. Many times I thought to myself, "Let the health groups tell Frank and Margaret to their face why their legal rights need to be traded away." If the health groups can do that, then by all means, go ahead and support the global tobacco settlement. But if you can't tell Frank and Margaret that to their faces, then you have no business trading away their legal rights.

I remember sitting one morning in Attorneys Stanley and Susan Rosenblatt's office waiting to testify. Instead of preparing for the long cross-examination I was sure to face, I was writing and issuing a press release to denounce the proposed tobacco settlement and its trading away of the legal rights of American citizens without their consent. I had no choice. I had met Frank and Margaret. I finally knew, firsthand, what the pursuit of justice was all about.

There were really two things that got me through what was a trying ordeal, facing intense questioning from tobacco company attorneys for hours, repeated five times, in Courtroom 6-1. First was the sign above me, in the front of the courtroom: "We Who Labor Here Seek Only Truth." That sign reminded me that my job was actually easy. I merely had to tell it like it is. That was easy. There was nothing to complain about. Frank and Margaret were the true heroes. They were the ones who had to have the courage. I merely had to tell the truth.

The second thing that inspired and comforted me was looking at Frank and Margaret. They made the trip down from Orlando every day. There was never a day I remember testifying that they weren't in the courtroom.

They were dealt a difficult hand. But what they did with their cards was nothing short of heroic.

Frank and Margaret Amodeo are true heroes. They are, and will always remain, my heroes.

Needless to say, I was deeply saddened and shaken to hear the news that Margaret suffered a massive stroke this weekend. In addition to offering my prayers for Frank and Margaret and their entire family, I honor them for being modern-day heroes.