(Adds details of case, quote from lawyer; background on
By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Fla., July 19 A Florida jury has
awarded the widow of a chain smoker who died of lung cancer 18
years ago record punitive damages of more than $23 billion in
her lawsuit against the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, the
nation's second-biggest cigarette maker.
The judgment, returned on Friday night, was the largest in
Florida history in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by a single
plaintiff, according to Ryan Julison, 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.
Johnson, a 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, Chestnut said.
"He couldn't quit. He was smoking the day he died," the
lawyer told Reuters on Saturday.
After a four-week trial and 11 hours of deliberations, the
jury returned a verdict granting compensatory 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 same jury deliberated for another seven hours before
awarding Robinson the additional sum of $23.6 billion in
punitive damages, according to the verdict forms.
Lawyers for the tobacco company, a unit of Reynolds American
Inc whose brands include Camel, Kool, Winston and Pall
Mall cigarettes, could not immediately be reached for comment.
But J. Jeffery Raborn, vice president and assistant general
counsel for R.J. Reynolds, said in a statement quoted by the New
York Times that the company planned to challenge "this runaway
verdict." Such industry appeals are often successful.
Chestnut countered, "This wasn't a runaway jury, it was a
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 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.
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 favor of
the plaintiffs awarding $145 billion in punitive damages, which
at the time was the largest such judgment in U.S. 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. Robinson was one of them.
The Florida high court also let stand the jury's findings
that cigarettes are defective and cause disease, and that Big
Tobacco was negligent, meaning those issues did not have to be
re-litigated in future lawsuits.
The U.S. Supreme Court last month declined to hear a series
of tobacco company appeals, mainly from R.J. Reynolds, seeking
to overturn Florida court judgments totaling more than $70
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Sandra Maler)