MIAMI – A Florida jury has slammed the nation’s No. 2 cigarette maker, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., with $23.6 billion in punitive damages in a lawsuit filed by the widow of a longtime smoker who died of lung cancer in 1996.
Her attorneys said the punitive damages are the largest of any of thousands of similar cases filed in Florida after the state Supreme Court in 2006 tossed out a $145 billion class-action verdict.
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 for Cynthia Robinson, who sued Reynolds in 2008 on behalf of her late husband, Michael Johnson Sr.
The damages a Pensacola jury awarded Robinson on Friday after a four-week trial come in addition to $16.8 million in compensatory damages.
In its 2006 ruling, Florida’s high court also said that in such lawsuits, smokers and their families need only prove addiction and that smoking caused their illnesses or deaths. Last year, Florida’s highest court re-approved that decision, which made it easier for sick smokers or their survivors to pursue lawsuits against tobacco companies without having to prove to the court again that Big Tobacco knowingly sold dangerous products and hid the hazards of cigarette smoking.
Reynolds’ vice president and assistant general counsel, J. Jeffery Raborn, called the damages in Robinson’s case grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law.
The lawsuit’s goal was to stop tobacco companies from targeting young people with their advertising, said Willie Gary, another attorney representing Robinson.
If we don’t get a dime, that’s OK, if we can make a difference and save some lives, Gary said.
Other Florida juries have hit tobacco companies with tens of millions of dollars in punitive damages in lawsuits stemming from the original class-action lawsuit. And some such verdicts have been upheld by appeals courts.
And in June, the U.S. Supreme Court turned away cigarette manufacturers’ appeals of more than $70 million in court judgments to Florida smokers. Reynolds, Philip Morris USA Inc. and Lorillard Tobacco Co. had wanted the court to review cases in which smokers won large damage awards without having to prove that the companies sold a defective and dangerous product or hid the risks of smoking.