Jury awards $23.6 billion in Reynolds smoking case

Widow in Florida argued that firm hid health hazards

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

MIAMI -- A jury in northwest Florida awarded a staggering $23 billion judgment late Friday against the country's second-largest tobacco company for causing the death of a chain smoker who died of lung cancer at the age of 36.

Michael Johnson Sr. died in 1996 after smoking for more than 20 years. In 2006, his widow, Cynthia Robinson, of Pensacola, sued R.J. Reynolds Co., the maker of the Kool brand cigarettes her husband had smoked, arguing that the company had deliberately concealed the health hazards its product caused.

The four-week trial ended Wednesday. The jury deliberated for 18 hours over two days, first awarding $17 million in compensatory damages and then emerging at 10 p.m. Friday with a $23.6 billion punitive judgment.

"When they first read the verdict, I know I heard 'million,' and I got so excited," Ms. Robinson said in a phone interview Saturday. "Then the attorney informed me that was a 'B' -- billion. It was just unbelievable."

She said Mr. Johnson, a longshoreman and hotel shuttle bus driver to whom she was married from 1990 until his death six years later, began smoking around age 13. He often lit a fresh cigarette with the butt end of another.

"He really did smoke a lot," she said.

He had two children, who are now 23 and 29.

R.J. Reynolds promised a prompt appeal.

"The damages awarded in this case are grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law," J. Jeffery Raborn, vice president and assistant general counsel for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, said Saturday in a statement. "This verdict goes far beyond the realm of reasonableness and fairness and is completely inconsistent with the evidence presented. 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."

Such efforts by the industry are often successful. In October 2002, a Los Angeles jury awarded $28 billion in punitive damages against Philip Morris USA. In August 2011, an appeals court reduced the punitive damages to $28 million.

The Florida case was among the thousands of the "Engle-progeny" cases that stemmed from a 2006 court decision, ruling that smokers could not file class-action suits but were free to do so individually.

That decision reversed a $145 billion verdict in a class-action case awarded in 2000 on behalf of a Miami Beach pediatrician, Howard A. Engle. An appeals court voided that award, saying it was excessive and that the cases of individual smokers were too disparate to be considered as a class.

The plaintiffs petitioned the Florida Supreme Court, which upheld the decertification of the class but permitted individuals to sue, which set the stage for Ms. Robinson's lawsuit.

Friday's verdict was the highest granted to an Engle-progeny case.

Ms. Robinson was represented by Christopher M. Chestnut and Willie E. Gary, both based in Georgia, and Howard M. Acosta of St. Petersburg, Fla.

"The jury just got it," Mr. Chestnut said. "The jury was outraged with the concealment and the conspiracy to conceal that smoking was not only addictive but that there were deadly chemicals in cigarettes."

He said the jury seemed most swayed by 1994 C-Span footage of tobacco industry executives claiming smoking did not cause cancer and was not addictive, and by 60-year-old internal documents showing the company knew otherwise.

Scott P. Schlesinger, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who has sued big tobacco but was not involved in the Robinson case, said a verdict this large is not typical.



Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here