Florida Jury Hits Tobacco Company With $23.6B Damage Amount

A Florida jury hit R.J. Reynolds Tobacco company with a $23.6 billion ruling for damages in a lawsuit brought on by the widow of a chain smoker.

Cynthia Robinson was also given $16.8 million in compensatory damages after the four-week trial that caused one head Reynolds executive to see red. Robinson’s husband, who was a chain smoker, had died in 1996 from lung cancer. According to Robinson, her husband started smoking when he was 13 and didn’t know how addictive cigarettes were.

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco company V.P. J. Jeffrey Raborn said the verdict is beyond what is reasonable and fair. He said it’s not consistent with the evidence that was presented.  Raborn said the company would appeal the verdict, which Robinson’s attorneys have said is the biggest wrongful death payment for one plaintiff in the history of Florida.

Christopher Chestnut, who was one lawyer to represent Robinson, said the jury’s statement was clear: the tobacco industry cannot continue lying to the American public and government about the dangers of the deadly chemicals in cigarettes.

Willie Gary, another one of Robinson’s lawyers, said the goal behind the lawsuit was to stop tobacco companies from targeting their ads toward young customers.  He said if they don’t get a dime from the lawsuit, it’s fine so long as we make a difference to save lives.

Robinson filed her lawsuit in 2008 after her husband – Michael Johnson, Sr. – died at the age of 36. Johnson, who was a hotel shuttle bus driver, smoked nearly three packs a day for 20 years and died smoking a cigarette.

The large jury award is the largest of individual Florida cases since the $145 billion class action lawsuit was overturned in 2006. That lawsuit was also geared toward the tobacco industry.

Gary said he thinks the payout will be upheld because the jury awarded it to send a message.

Reynolds does have some legal guide for its appeal. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court said punitive damages could not exceed nine times the compensatory amount.

The jury took 11 hours to deliberate before giving its compensatory amount of $7.3 million to Robinson and $9.6 million for the son the couple had together. They deliberated another seven hours before they gave their multibillion dollar punitive award amount.

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