Widow wins $23.6bn in damages in tobacco case

Camel cigarette maker Reynolds American has bid $25m to buy rival Lorillard. Picture: Paul Sakuma/AP
Camel cigarette maker Reynolds American has bid $25m to buy rival Lorillard. Picture: Paul Sakuma/AP
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A JURY has hit America’s ­second-biggest cigarette maker with a punitive damages ruling of $23.6 billion (about £13.8bn) in a case brought by the widow of a long-time smoker who died of lung cancer in 1996.

The RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company case is one of thousands filed in Florida after the state supreme court threw out a $145bn class action verdict in 2006. But that ruling also said smokers and their families needed only prove addiction and that smoking caused their illnesses or deaths.

Last year, Florida’s highest court re-approved that decision, which made it easier for sick smokers or their survivors to pursue lawsuits against tobacco firms without having to prove to the court again that Big Tobacco – America’s collective term for the industry’s major firms – knowingly sold dangerous products and hid the hazards of cigarette smoking.

The damages a Pensacola jury awarded to Cynthia Robinson after a four-week trial are in addition to $16.8 million in compensatory damages. Ms Robinson individually sued Reynolds in 2008 on behalf of her late husband, Michael Johnson.

Her lawyers said the punitive damages are the largest of any individual case stemming from the original class action lawsuit. One of her legal team, Christopher Chestnut, said: “The jury wanted to send a statement that Big Tobacco cannot continue to lie to the American people … about the addictiveness of and the deadly chemicals in their cigarettes.”

Reynolds’ vice-president and assistant general counsel Jeffery Raborn called the Robinson damages “grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law”.

He said: “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.”

The lawsuit’s goal was to stop tobacco companies from targeting children and young people with their advertising, said Willie Gary, another of the lawyers representing Ms Robinson.

He said: “If we don’t get a dime, that’s OK, if we can make a difference and save some lives.”

The verdict comes in the same week that Reynolds American, which owns RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company, announced it was buying Lorillard Tobacco, the country’s third-biggest cigarette maker, in a $25bn deal. That would create a tobacco company second only in the US to Marlboro maker Altria Group, which owns Philip Morris USA. The deal is expected to be finalised in the first half of 2015.

In June, the US Supreme Court turned away cigarette manufacturers’ appeals of more than $70m in court judgments to Florida smokers.

Reynolds, Philip Morris USA and Lorillard Tobacco had wanted the court to review cases in which smokers won large damage awards without having to prove that the companies sold a defective and dangerous product or hid the risks of smoking.

The court refused to hear another of the companies’ appeals last year, over a $2.5m verdict in the death of a smoker.

Other Florida juries have hit tobacco companies with tens of millions in punitive damages in lawsuits stemming from the original class action lawsuit.

In August, a Fort Lauderdale jury awarded $37.5m, including $22.5m in punitive damages, against Reynolds to the family of a smoker who died at 38 of lung cancer in 1995.

Lawyers for Reynolds said the firm would appeal, arguing that the woman knew the dangers of smoking because cigarettes had warning labels when she took it up. The lawyer for her family said teenagers like her were targeted by tobacco companies.