Florida's Anti-Tobacco Verdict

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Florida's Anti-Tobacco Verdict
| published July 23, 2014 |

By Earl Perkins
Thursday Review features editor

Smokers have known from time immemorial that smoking causes cancer and excruciating death, but juries continue to award massive claims against major tobacco corporations. The widow of a chain smoker who died of lung cancer has been awarded more than $23 billion in her lawsuit against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, according to the Pensacola News-Journal and Reuters.

The jury returned the verdict this month, setting a Florida record as the largest sum awarded in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by a single plaintiff, according to a spokesman for one of the woman's lawyers, Chris Chestnut. Cynthia Robinson of Pensacola sued the nation's second-largest cigarette manufacturer in 2008, holding them liable for the death of her husband, Michael Johnson Sr.

The shuttle bus driver smoked one to three packs a day for more than 20 years, starting when he was 13. Johnson became addicted to tobacco, eventually dying from lung cancer at the age of 36 in 1996, according to the attorney.

"He couldn't quit. He was smoking the day he died," Chestnut said.

The trial took a month, and following 11 hours of deliberations, the jury returned a verdict granting the widow $7.3 million and the couple's son $9.6 million in compensatory damages. After deliberating for another seven hours, they awarded Robinson $23.6 billion in punitive damages. The jury held Reynolds negligent for not informing Robinson that smoking causes lung cancer and that nicotine is highly addictive.

"The environment today is completely different than it was in the '50s and '60s, when Robinson's husband was alive," Chestnut said. "Reynolds knew its product was addictive, but it didn't market it correctly. The company lied and marketed cigarettes as safe, yet they contained countless harmful chemicals."

The case had previously been part of the historic class-action suit, Engle v. Liggett Group. A group of people with smoking-related disease and family members of deceased smokers were awarded $145 billion in 2000, but the Florida Supreme Court overturned that ruling in 2006. Agreeing with a lower court, the state court claimed the group was too disparate, and that individuals each have different reasons for smoking.

However, individual plaintiffs were welcome to file suits on their own. Robinson's lawyers would use the Engle jury's findings, claiming smoking causes cancer, nicotine is addictive and that tobacco companies sold defective and unreasonably dangerous cigarettes. The findings also noted Big Tobacco was negligent, meaning those issues didn't have to be re-litigated in future lawsuits.

"The jury wanted to send a statement that (Big) Tobacco cannot continue to lie to the American people and the American government about the addictiveness of and the deadly chemicals in their cigarettes," said Chestnut.

Reynolds' vice president and assistant general counsel, Jeffery Raborn, called the damages in Robinson's case "grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law.

"This verdict goes far beyond the realm of reasonableness and fairness and is completely inconsistent with the evidence presented,” Raborn said. “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 aimed to stop tobacco companies from targeting children and young people with advertising, according to Willie Gary, another attorney representing Robinson.

"If we don't get a dime, that's OK, if we can make a difference and save some lives," Gary said.

Raborn, speaking to the New York Times on behalf of Reynolds, said the company planned to challenge the verdict. Such industry appeals are often successful.

Chestnut countered, "This wasn't a runaway jury, it was a courageous one."

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