When a jury in Florida ordered RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company to pay a widow $23.6 billion in damages Friday, there was much excitement over both the record sum and the message the verdict sends to big tobacco.
Cynthia Robinson filed the lawsuit against RJ Reynolds — its brands include Pall Mall, Kool, Camel, and Lucky Strike — in 2006 on behalf of her husband, Michael Johnson Sr, who'd died of lung cancer 10 years before. Despite multiple attempts to quit, Johnson chain-smoked Kools. Robinson's lawyers argued that the cigarette maker was negligent in addressing the health impacts of smoking with users, thus resulting in the addiction that led to Johnson’s death.
"RJ Reynolds took a calculated risk by manufacturing cigarettes and selling them to consumers without properly informing them of the hazards,” said Willie Gary, one of the plaintiff's lawyers.
Robinson told the New York Times that the verdict "was just unbelievable.” Johnson’s estate had already been awarded $17 million in compensatory damages.
"The jury wanted to send a statement that tobacco cannot continue to lie to the American people and the American government about the addictiveness of and the deadly chemicals in their cigarettes," Christopher Chestnut, another lawyer for the plaintiff, said in a statement.
"This verdict goes far beyond the realm of reasonableness and fairness, and is completely inconsistent with the evidence presented,” RJ Reynolds Vice President Jeffrey 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.''
Clifford Douglas, director at the University of Michigan’s Tobacco Research Network, told VICE News the Robinson case is a “landmark verdict because of its size.”
This is the first award ruling to hit the billion-dollar mark in a group of Florida tobacco lawsuits known as “Engle progeny” cases, all resulting from a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Dr. Howard Engle whose 2000 ruling awarded $145 billion in punitive damages.
In 2006 the ruling was decertified, with a court determining that each smoker needed to file separate litigation with the respective company in order to seek damages. Using the findings of liability from the class-action case, about 8,000 litigants filed lawsuits under the Engle progeny umbrella — and according to Douglas, nearly 70 percent of the Engle cases that have been decided have been decided in favor of the plaintiffs. Tobacco companies used to win most wrongful death lawsuits; Douglas attributes the shift largely to jurors' increased awareness of the ill health effects of smoking.
Despite plaintiffs' success in the Engle hearings, billion-dollar awards had not previously been sought. “There have not been multibillion-dollar punishments in the Engle cases for one reason: We are afraid to ask for them," Florida lawyer Scott P. Schlesinger told the New York Times. "We are afraid of what will happen in the appellate process."
These fears have been validated in the appeals process of other Engle cases. In a 2009 ruling, the widow of a deceased smoker sought $130 million in damages from Philip Morris USA, was awarded $8 million, and didn't even get that; Philip Morris, the nation’s largest tobacco company, appealed the decision and the award was reduced and eventually vacated altogether in 2012.
“It’s important to understand companies regularly assume litigation costs as costs of doing business,” Douglas said.
So it's little surprise that legal and industry experts anticipate a reduction in Robinson’s award during the appeals process. “This large punitive award will almost certainly be reduced," Douglas said, "but it’s likely the verdict will be upheld and the industry will definitely pay a sizable award."
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