Roger Ackman's testimony Monday came in the largest class-action suit in Canadian history, which is also the first trial of its kind involving cigarette companies in this country.
Two groups of claimants are arguing they were misled by three cigarette companies about the addictiveness and danger of smoking, or that they suffered health problems for which the industry is to blame.
Ackman testifed in the $27-billion case that when he was vice-president of legal affairs at Imperial Tobacco, he participated in the destruction of documents.
But Ackman suffered from repeated memory blanks — saying he didn't remember why the documents were destroyed, who asked for them to be destroyed, or what specifically was in the documents.
"It was a long time ago," Ackman often said under questioning from Gordon Kugler, one of more than a dozen lawyers representing the plaintiffs.
"I don't recall."
The Canadian case comes years after lawsuits and huge cash settlements in the United States.
In one American case, in 2006, the U.S. Federal District Court concluded tobacco companies had set up a complex series of hurdles to downplay research on the dangers of smoking, ranging from public relations spin to the shredding of documents.
The ruling by U.S. Judge Gladys Kessler said research was shredded in Canada, the United States and Australia. Some copies have remained on file with British American Tobacco.
She cited a 1992 letter sent by Montreal lawyer Simon Potter, who represented Imperial, to lawyers at British American Tobacco, saying he intended to destroy 60 documents unless he received instructions to the contrary. The documents were listed and included scientific studies and another document with the notation "not destroyed because never received by Imperial."
Potter has been representing one of the tobacco companies involved in the case, but may be called to testify as a witness.