US tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds told to pay US$23b to chain-smoker's widow

R.J. Reynolds told to pay huge punitive damages over 1996 lung cancer death

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 July, 2014, 4:51am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 July, 2014, 6:52am

A Florida jury has awarded the widow of a chain-smoker who died of lung cancer 18 years ago record punitive damages of more than US$23 billion in her lawsuit against the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, the second-biggest cigarette maker in the US.

The judgment was the largest in Florida history in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by a single plaintiff, said the woman's lawyer, Chris Chestnut.

Cynthia Robinson, of Pensacola, sued the cigarette maker in 2008 over the death of her husband, Michael Johnson, claiming the company conspired to conceal the health dangers and addictive nature of its products.

Johnson, a hotel shuttle bus driver who died of lung cancer in 1996 at age 36, smoked one to three packs a day for more 20 years, starting at the age of 13, Chestnut said.

"He couldn't quit. He was smoking the day he died," the lawyer added.

After a four-week trial and 11 hours of deliberations, the jury returned a verdict granting compensatory damages of US$7.3 million to the widow and the couple's child and $9.6 million to Johnson's son from a previous relationship.

The same jury deliberated for another seven hours before awarding Robinson the additional sum of US$23.6 billion in punitive damages.

Jeffery Raborn, vice-president and assistant general counsel for R.J. Reynolds, said in a statement that the company planned to challenge "this runaway verdict". Such industry appeals are often successful.

Robinson's lawsuit originally was part of a large class-action litigation known as the "Engle case", filed in 1994 against tobacco companies.

A jury in that case returned a verdict in 2000 in favour of the plaintiffs and awarded US$145 billion in punitive damages, which at the time was the largest such judgment in US history.

But that award was thrown out in 2006 by the Florida Supreme Court, which decided the group was too disparate and that each consumer had smoked for different reasons.

But the court said the plaintiffs could file lawsuits individually. Robinson was one of them.

The Florida high court also let stand the jury's findings that cigarettes are defective and cause disease. It also said the major tobacco companies were negligent, meaning those issues did not have to be re-litigated in future lawsuits.