A Florida jury has awarded the widow of a chain smoker over $23 billion in a lawsuit against R.J Reynolds Tobacco Company. The tobacco company is a unit of Reynolds American Inc (NYSE: RAI) and is the second biggest cigarette maker in the country.
The award was the largest in Florida’s history in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by a single plaintiff. Cynthia Robinson sued the cigarette company in 2008 for the death of her husband, Michael Johnson. The lawsuit argued that R.J Reynolds was negligent for not informing consumers that nicotine is addictive and smoking can cause lung cancer.
Johnson, who was a shuttle bus driver, died of lung cancer in 1996. He was 36 years old and smoked one to three packs of cigarettes a day starting at the age of 13.
After a four week trial, the jury returned a verdict and granted the widow $7.3 million and their son an additional $9.6 million in damages. After several hours, the same jury decided to award Ms Robinson an additional sum of $23.6 billion in punitive damages.
“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, an attorney representing Cynthia Robinson.
R.J Reynolds Tabacco Co. executive Jeffery Raborn called the damages grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law. “This verdict goes far beyond the realm of reasonableness and fairness, and is completely inconsistent with the evidence presented,” Raborn, a company vice president and assistant general counsel, said 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.”
Robinson’s lawsuit was part of a class action litigation known as the “Engle Case,” which was originally filed in 1994 against tobacco companies. A jury awarded the plaintiffs $145 billion in punitive damages in 2000 but by 2006, the award was overturned by the Florida Supreme Court. The court said the plaintiffs could file lawsuits individually and Robinson was one of them.
Attorneys for R.J Reynolds said they will appeal the decision, arguing that consumers knew the dangers of smoking because the cigarettes had warning labels.