(Adds details of case, quote from lawyer; background on litigation)
By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Fla., July 19 (Reuters) - 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 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 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 million. (Editing by Steve Gorman and Sandra Maler)