A Northwest Florida jury awarded a widow $23.6 billion in punitive damages in her lawsuit against tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Cynthia Robinson asserted that smoking killed her husband, Michael Johnson, in 1996. She claimed R.J. Reynolds was wrong for not informing him that nicotine is addictive and smoking can cause lung cancer. Johnson died of lung cancer when he was 36 after smoking for twenty three years.
The Escambia County trial took four weeks and the jury deliberated for 15 hours. The verdict included more than $16 million in compensatory damages.
“I think the jury wanted to make a difference,” trial attorney Willie Gary said. “All the cards were put on the table to show how the tobacco industry lied and failed to disclose information that could have saved lives, and that’s what the jury ruled on in this case.”
Reynolds called the award to Robinson excessive and said it would appeal. In the past, appeal courts have knocked down large punitive awards under U.S. Supreme Court precedent requiring some reasonable relationship between actual harm (compensatory damages) and the punishment ( punitive damages). That being said, some large jury verdicts awarding tens of millions of dollars in damages to relatives of smokers have been upheld by appeals courts. In September, the 3rd District Court of Appeals affirmed $25 million in punitive damages and $10 million in compensatory damages against Lorillard, the country’s No. 3 cigarette maker, for Dorothy Alexander, whose husband died in 1996 of lung cancer. Lorillard, based in Greensboro, North Carolina, unsuccessfully argued the damages were excessive and raised a number of other claims.
The 1st District Court of Appeals upheld in June 2013 a $20 million punitive damage award to another smoker’s widow, more than a year after reversing a $40.8 million award in the same case against Reynolds. After the appeals court rejected the first award as excessive the award amount was recalculated. The tobacco company still objected.
The case was once part of the Engle v. Liggett Group Inc. class-action suit. In that case, a jury awarded damages of more than $145 billion to a nationwide group of people with smoking-related disease and family members of deceased smokers. The Florida Supreme Court later later overturned that ruling in 2006 but said that individual plaintiffs could file individual suits using the Engle jury’s findings that smoking causes cancer, nicotine is addictive, and the tobacco companies sold defective and unreasonably dangerous cigarettes. Robinson filed her lawsuit in 2008.
It will be interesting to see if this verdict is upheld by the First District Court of Appeals in Florida. We will keep you posted.