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Fla. jury slams RJ Reynolds with $23.6B in damages

Jody Reavis, an employee of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., a uni
Associated Press

MIAMI (AP) -- A Florida jury has slammed the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. with $23.6 billion in punitive damages in a lawsuit filed by the widow of a longtime smoker who died of lung cancer in 1996.

The case is one of thousands filed in Florida after the state Supreme Court in 2006 tossed out a $145 billion class action verdict. That ruling also said smokers and their families need 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 companies without having to prove to the court again that Big Tobacco knowingly sold dangerous products and hid the hazards of cigarette smoking.

The damages a Pensacola jury awarded Friday to Cynthia Robinson after a four-week trial come in addition to $16.8 million in compensatory damages.

Robinson individually sued Reynolds, the country's No. 2 cigarette maker, in 2008 on behalf of her late husband, Michael Johnson Sr. Her attorneys said the punitive damages are the largest of any individual case stemming from the original class action lawsuit.

"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," said one of the woman's attorneys, Christopher 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 in a statement. "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 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.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court turned away cigarette manufacturers' appeals of more than $70 million in court judgments to Florida smokers. Reynolds, Philip Morris USA Inc. and Lorillard Tobacco Co. 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 Supreme Court refused to hear another of the companies' appeals last year, wanting the court to consider overturning a $2.5 million Tampa jury verdict in the death of a smoker.

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

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

Attorneys for Reynolds said they would appeal, arguing that the woman knew the dangers of smoking because cigarettes had warning labels when she started. The attorney for the woman's family said teenagers like her were targeted by tobacco companies.

Some large jury verdicts awarding tens of millions of dollars in damages to relatives of smokers have been upheld by appeals courts.

In September, the 3rd District Court of Appeals affirmed $25 million in punitive damages and $10 million in compensatory damages against Lorillard, the country's No. 3 cigarette maker, for Dorothy Alexander, whose husband died in 1996 of lung cancer. Lorillard, based in Greensboro, North Carolina, unsuccessfully argued the damages were excessive and raised a number of other claims.

The 1st District Court of Appeals upheld in June 2013 a $20 million punitive damage award to another smoker's widow, more than a year after reversing a $40.8 million award in the same case against Reynolds. After the appeals court rejected the first award as excessive the award amount was recalculated. The tobacco company still objected.

Philip Morris is the country's biggest tobacco company and owned by Richmond, Virginia-based Altria Group Inc. Reynolds is owned by Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based Reynolds American Inc.

Join the discussion

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j.pr3 July 19 2014 at 5:41 PM

I am of a different view than most people and am sure I will be lambasted with hate, but my opinion is that sure the people who make the cigarettes know they are unhealthy, but what about the people who purchase and smoke them. Before you get all excited, I lost my mother to emphysema, so I know a little something about the health hazards. If people, knowing that smoking is hazardous to their health, choose to continue smoking, then why should they or their families be allowed to sue and collect large sums of money for doing something they KNOW is going to most likely kill them? I don't think anyone deliberately ignoring warnings should be allowed to sue. Can you sue Planter's Peanuts if your child is allergic to nuts and eats something containing peanuts or peanut oil? Same principle. Lucky I wasn't on that jury - she wouldn't have gotten a dime.

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50 replies
Trooper Brown July 19 2014 at 5:47 PM

I'm a former tobacco user. Nobody forced me or anyone to use tobacco. It is not new news that tabacco is bad for your health. How about people start taking resonsibility for their actions.

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32 replies
xbluboy July 19 2014 at 5:54 PM

This verdict is ludicrous! When will individuals take responsibility for their own actions. Is liquor next? These companies all need to pull out of the U.S. See how the States and Feds could replace the billions in tax they extort.

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14 replies
roger702 July 19 2014 at 5:37 PM

its all about ATTORNEYS and nothing else. when I found out smoking was dangerous I QUIT/ BROTHER

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7 replies
dand3320 July 19 2014 at 5:53 PM

You don't catch addiction like a common cold, you personally bring it on yourself. What lawsuits should we expect from the legalization of pot? Lawyers stand by. Start with suing the state for permitting it.

Flag Reply +64 rate up
5 replies
joshua25tree July 19 2014 at 5:51 PM

I'm against smoking, but this is ridiculous. Everyone knows it's bad to smoke and that it's an addiction, freedom of choice. Sets a bad precedent this kind of verdict.

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3 replies
Jim Kelley July 19 2014 at 5:41 PM

Ok, here is the truth. I know smoking will kill you and those loved once you've lost knew it to, but they opted to keep smoking/chewing. I'm sorry for this and share your grief. However, the same dilema from alcohol is here, yet we don't see the legal issues as with tobacco. Bottom line...we all know it will KILL you..

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8 replies
Bonnie July 19 2014 at 5:55 PM

In what kind of insane World can the Plaitiff's Bar, representing people who chose to use a legal product that might have health consequences, Be awarded billions. just like they were in Asbestos lawsuits, to keep in trust and give very little to the actual "victims" NO WONDER they all back Obama and the Democrats who protect them and appoint Liberal judges to rob them. And at the same time, the same Liberals and same Judges legalizing Marijuana, so that the State, Plaintiff's Bar, phony "victims" can, at some time in the future ROB the Marijuana producers of all their profit and run them out of business? The only reason it is being legalized is so that the Government and Attorneys can get the profits into their greedy hands, after demonizing the Product and the Growers. Wake Up America!

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5 replies
rpopeviolins July 19 2014 at 5:48 PM

They'll just keep appealing the verdict. No one will see a penny of this.

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13 replies
buckschottz July 19 2014 at 7:18 PM

A great American product that we should all be proud to say is "Made in America". Somebody has to produce those bad boys, and that's us! Sell it in this Global Economy, China and India continue to be great opportunities.
Years ago you'd fly on a business trip, have a bourbon and a smoke in first class. No harm done.

Flag Reply +26 rate up
9 replies
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