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Tobacco giant to pay $23bn damages to Florida smoker’s widow

Published time: July 20, 2014 15:30
AFP Photo / Andrew Burton

AFP Photo / Andrew Burton

A jury in Florida has awarded the widow of a chain smoker who died of lung cancer at the age of 36 punitive damages of $23 billion. RJ Reynolds, the second biggest tobacco company in the US, plans to challenge “this runaway verdict.”

The judgment is the largest in Florida’s history in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by a single plaintiff, said a spokesman for the widow’s lawyer, Chris Chesnut.

Cynthia Robinson sued RJ Reynolds - which produces Winston, Camel and Pall Mall - back in 2008 over the death of her husband Michael Johnson, arguing the cigarette company concealed the dangers and addictive nature of smoking.

Johnson smoked between one and three packets a day for more than 20 years and died of lung cancer aged just 36 some 18 years ago.

“He couldn’t quit. He was smoking the day he died,” Chesnut told Reuters Saturday.

After 11 hours of deliberations the jury granted damages of $7.3 million to the widow and the couple’s child, and $9.6 million to Johnson’s son from a previous relationship.

The jury then deliberated for another seven hours and awarded Robinson a further $23.6 billion in punitive damages.

Jeffrey Raborn, the vice president of Reynolds American Inc., said in a statement as quoted by the New York Times, that they would challenge “this runaway verdict.” Appeals by large companies against individuals are often successful.

AFP Photo / Joe Raedle

But Chesnut defended the jury, saying “This wasn’t a runaway jury, it was a courageous one.”

He said the jury saw evidence of RJ Reynolds aggressive marketing of tobacco products, which were aimed mainly at young people, and were exposed to the standard defense of tobacco companies, i.e. that it was Johnson’s choice to smoke.

“They lied to Congress, they lied to the public, they lied to smokers and tried to blame the smoker,” he said.

Robinson’s case was initially part of a large class- action which was filed in 1994 and was known as the ‘Engel case’.

In 2000, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded the group a total of $145 billion in punitive damages, which then was the largest judgment in US history.

But in 2006, Florida’s Supreme Court tossed it out and ruled that the group of plaintiffs was too disparate and that each consumer had smoked for different reasons. However, the court also ruled that the plaintiffs could file lawsuits individually and this is what Robinson did.

Last August a jury in Fort Lauderdale, Florida awarded $37.5 million, including $22.5 million in punitive damages, against RJ Reynolds to the family of a smoker who died of lung cancer at the age of 38.