Joined: Apr 23 2007
Topic: Tobacco company hit with $23.6 billion ruling Posted: Jul 20 2014 at 12:54pm
R.J. Reynolds Tobacco company hit with $23.6 billion ruling in damages from lawsuit brought by chain smoker's widow
Cynthia Robinson, whose husband died of lung cancer in 1996, was awarded another $16.8 million in compensatory damages Friday, following a four-week trial that left a top Reynolds executive burning mad.
The R.J. Reynolds Tobacco company was whacked with a staggering $23.6 billion in punitive damages in a lawsuit brought by the widow of a chain smoker killed by lung cancer in 1996.
A Pensacola jury also awarded Cynthia Robinson another $16.8 million in compensatory damages Friday, following a four-week trial that left a top Reynolds executive burning mad.
“This verdict goes far beyond the realm of reasonableness and fairness, and is completely inconsistent with the evidence presented,” said company vice president and assistant general counsel J. Jeffrey Raborn.
He vowed to appeal the “runaway verdict” that Robinson’s legal team said was the largest wrongful death payout for a single plaintiff in Florida history.
“The jury wanted to send a statement that tobacco cannot continue to lie to the American people and the American government about the addictiveness of and the deadly chemicals in their cigarettes,” said Christopher Chestnut, one of Robinson’s lawyers.
Co-counsel Willie Gary said the lawsuit’s goal was to stop tobacco companies — including Reynolds, the nation’s second largest — from targeting young consumers with their ads.
“If we don’t get a dime, that’s OK, if we can make a difference and save some lives,” he said.
Robinson, of Pensacola, sued in 2008 on behalf of her husband, Michael Johnson Sr., who died at 36. He started smoking at 13, and the couple married six years before his death. The hotel shuttle bus driver smoked up to three packs a day for two decades — and he went to his grave with a cigarette in his mouth.
“He couldn’t quit,” Cynthia Robinson told Reuters. “He was smoking the day he died.”
The massive jury award was the highest of any individual case brought since a Florida court overturned a $145 billion class action verdict for smokers in 2006.
The ruling stemmed from a trial that ended six years earlier with the jury finding Big Tobacco was negligent, sold defective products and conspired to hide details about health risks. As part of its decision, though, the court ruled smokers and their families filing individual suits would only need to prove addiction and a link between smoking and their deaths.
Gary predicted the stunning payout will stand: “I hope and suspect that we will keep the verdict. The jury sent a message.”
Reynolds has some legal precedent in its appeal of the jury verdict: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that punitive damages should generally not exceed more than nine times the compensatory figure.
The jury deliberated for 11 hours before returning the compensatory payout of $7.3 million to Robinson and $9.6 million to the couple’s son.
Seven hours later, they returned with the multibillion-dollar punitive award.
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