Alleging "grossly excessive" damages: R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, whose brands include Camel cigarettes, has promised a prompt appeal. Photo: AFP
Orlando: A Florida jury has awarded the widow of a chain-smoker who died of lung cancer 18 years ago punitive damages of more than $25 billion in her lawsuit against the US's second-biggest cigarette maker.
The judgment against the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company is the largest in Florida history and the second-biggest in the US in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by a single plaintiff, according to a spokesman for the woman's lawyer, Chris Chestnut.
Cynthia Robinson of the Florida Panhandle city 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.
The four-week trial ended on Wednesday. The jury deliberated for 18 hours over two days, first awarding $US17 million in compensatory damages and then emerging late on Friday night with a $US23.6 billion ($25.1 billion) punitive judgment.
"When they first read the verdict, I know I heard 'million' and I got so excited," Ms Robinson said. "Then the attorney informed me that was a 'B' – billion. It was just unbelievable."
Mr Johnson, a longshoreman and 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 age 13, Mr Chestnut said.
"He couldn't quit," the lawyer said. "He was smoking the day he died."
R. J. Reynolds, whose brands include Camel, Kool, Winston and Pall Mall cigarettes, promised a prompt appeal.
"The damages awarded in this case are grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law," said Jeffery Raborn, vice-president and assistant general counsel for R. J. Reynolds Tobacco. "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.
Mr Chestnut said: "This wasn't a runaway jury, it was a courageous one."
He said jurors appeared to have been swayed by evidence of the company's aggressive marketing of tobacco products, particularly promotions aimed at young people, and by its claims that it was Mr Johnson's choice to smoke.
"They lied to Congress, they lied to the public, they lied to smokers and tried to blamed the smoker," he said. "The jury just got it . . . 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."
Mr 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, awarding $US145 billion in punitive damages, which at the time was the largest such judgment in US history.
That award, however, was tossed out in 2006 by the Florida Supreme Court, which decertified the class, agreeing with a lower court that the group was too disparate and that each consumer had smoked for different reasons.
But the court said the plaintiffs could file lawsuits individually. Ms Robinson was one of them.
Reuters, New York Times