R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, the second-largest cigarette maker in the U.S., was ordered to pay $23.6 billion in punitive damages and $16.8 billion in compensatory damages to a Florida widow.
Thousands of similar cases have been filed in Florida after the state Supreme Court threw out a $145 billion class action verdict back in 2006. When the ruling was overturned, the Florida Supreme Court stated that individual plaintiffs could file suits using the jury’s findings that smoking causes cancer, nicotine is addictive, and the tobacco companies sold defective and unreasonably dangerous cigarettes.
Cynthia Robinson, the plaintiff, sued R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in 2008 on behalf of her late husband, Michael Johnson Sr. Robinson’s husband started smoking when he was 13 and died of lung cancer at 36.
In the 1950s and 1960s, when Robinson’s husband was alive and smoking, the tobacco industry and cultural environment was very different than how it is today. Tobacco industry regulations, including requirements for warning labels and disclosure of ingredients, are a relatively new creation. Before heavy regulation, Robinson’s attorneys argued, R.J. Reynolds presented their product as safe when in fact it contained a number of harmful chemicals.
Willie Gary, one of Robinson’s attorneys, argued that R.J. Reynolds withheld information about the addictive and harmful nature of cigarettes. Gary stated that he and Robinson’s overall goal is to stop tobacco companies from targeting children and young people with their advertising.
“If we don’t get a dime, that’s OK, if we can make a difference and save some lives,” Gary said.
Predictably, the legal team for R.J. Reynolds contests the verdict and plans to make an appeal.
“This verdict goes far beyond the realm of reasonableness and fairness, and is completely inconsistent with the evidence presented,” said R.J. Reynolds’ vice president and assistant general counsel Jeffery Raborn in a statement. “We plan to file post-trial motions with the trial court promptly, and are confident that the court will follow the law and not allow this runaway verdict to stand.”
The $23.6 billion in punitive damages constitute the largest award given to any individual case from the original class-action lawsuit. The trial lasted four weeks in Escambia County, and the jury deliberated for approximately 15 hours, according to the Pensacola News Journal.
Just last month, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected cigarette makers’ appeals of more than $70 million in court judgments awarded to Florida smokers. Philip Morris USA Inc. and Lorrilard Tobacco Co., in addition to R.J. Reynolds, disagreed with cases in which smokers won large damage awards despite failure to prove that the companies sold a dangerous or defective product or hid the health risks of smoking. Another appeal by tobacco companies was rejected last year after a Tampa jury awarded $2.5 million in the death of a smoker.
While the process is still ongoing, juries seem to favor the consumers in anti-tobacco lawsuits. Other Florida juries have awarded tens of millions of dollars in punitive damages to plaintiffs involved in the original class-action lawsuit, and some large jury verdicts awarded to relatives of smokers have been upheld in appellate court.