Widow's $23bn tobacco win slammed as 'grossly excessive'

Jul 21, 2014

Cigarette company RJ Reynolds plans to challenge 'runaway verdict' for widow of Florida chain smoker


A $23.6bn payout to the widow of a lung cancer victim has been branded as "grossly excessive" by the tobacco firm being told to hand over the cash.

RJ Reynolds, the second largest tobacco company in the US, was successfully sued on Friday 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 23 years. His widow Cynthia Robinson sued RJ Reynolds, the maker of the Kool cigarettes her husband had smoked, arguing that the company had deliberately concealed the health hazards its product caused.

A jury in north-western Florida awarded $17m in compensatory damages and then a "staggering" $23.6bn in punitive damages, reports the New York Times.

Robinson admitted that her husband "really did smoke a lot", often lighting a fresh cigarette with the butt end of another and even smoking on the day he died. But she claimed the tobacco company concealed the fact that smoking was addictive and dangerous back in the 1990s.

Evidence included 1994 video footage of tobacco industry executives claiming smoking did not cause cancer and was not addictive, as well as 60-year-old internal documents showing the company knew otherwise.

J Jeffery Raborn, vice president for RJ Reynolds, has described the damages as "grossly excessive" and "impermissible under state and constitutional law". The company plans to challenge what it calls a "runaway verdict".

But Robinson's lawyer, Christopher Chestnut, insisted: "This wasn't a runaway jury, it was a courageous one." He said the tobacco company had "lied to Congress, they lied to the public, they lied to smokers and tried to blamed the smoker".

The "massive" award was the highest of any individual case brought since a Florida court overturned a $145bn group action verdict for smokers in 2006, says the New York Daily News. Robinson's ruling stemmed from that 2006 trial, in which the court ruled that smokers and their families could file individual suits.

Bloomberg's Paul Barrett says the figure "sounds like a lot of money" but believes it "probably does not matter" in terms of the future of the cigarette industry.

"The dollar amount won't stand up on appeal, and the consolidating cigarette industry long ago calculated the flow of individual liability verdicts into its cost of doing business," he says.

Legal analysts told CNN that Robinson may not see any money at all if the appeal is successful. However, the New York Daily News points out that the US Supreme Court previously set a precedent in 2003 that punitive damages should generally not exceed more than nine times the compensatory figure. This suggests Robinson and her family could still be left with up to $150m.

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