Smoker’s widow awarded $23 bn in punitive damages in Florida

July 21, 2014

, Reynolds

A Florida jury has awarded the widow of a chain smoker who died of lung cancer punitive damages of more than 23 billion dollars (Sh2.2 Trillion) in her lawsuit against the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, the second-biggest cigarette maker in the United States.

The judgment, returned on Friday night, was the largest in Florida history in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by a single plaintiff, according to Ryan Julison, a spokesman for the woman’s lawyer, Chris Chestnut.

Cynthia Robinson sued the cigarette maker in 2008 over the death of her husband, Michael Johnson.

Johnson, a hotel shuttle bus driver who died of lung cancer in 1996 at age 36, smoked one to three packets a day for more 20 years, starting at age 13, Chestnut said.

“He couldn’t quit. He was smoking the day he died,” the lawyer told Reuters on Saturday.

During the four-week trial, lawyers for Robinson argued that R.J. Reynolds was negligent in informing consumers of the dangers of consuming tobacco and this led to Johnson contracting lung cancer from smoking cigarettes.

After 11 hours of jury deliberations, the jury returned a verdict granting compensatory damages of 7.3 million dollars (5.4 million Euros) to the widow and the couple’s child, and 9.6 million dollars to Johnson’s son from a previous relationship.

The same jury deliberated for another seven hours before deciding to award Robinson the additional sum of 23.6 billion dollars in punitive damages, according to the verdict forms.

R.J. Reynolds plan to appeal the court decision and verdict, vice president and assistant general counsel J. Jeffery Raborn said.

The landmark award was “far beyond the realm of reasonableness and fairness,” he charged in a statement.

‘Grossly excessive’

Reynolds is “confident that the court will follow the law and not allow this runaway verdict to stand,” Raborn added, calling the damages “grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law.”

Chestnut countered, “This wasn’t a runaway jury, it was a courageous one.”

Robinson’s lawsuit originally was part of a large class-action litigation known as the “Engle case,” filed in 1994 against tobacco companies.

A jury in that case returned a verdict in 2000 in favour of the plaintiffs awarding 145 billion dollars in punitive damages, which at the time was the largest such judgment in US history.

That award, however, was tossed out in 2006 by the Florida Supreme Court, which decertified the class, agreeing with a lower court that the group was too disparate and each smoker smoked for different reasons.

But the court said the plaintiffs could file lawsuits individually. Robinson was one of them.

The Florida high court also let stand the jury’s findings that cigarettes are defective, dangerous and cause disease, and that Big Tobacco was negligent, meaning those issues did not have to be re-litigated in future lawsuits.

Smoking remains the leading preventable cause of premature death in the United States, killing nearly half a million Americans each year, health experts say.

Some 18 percent of Americans now smoke, down from 42 percent in the 1960s.

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