Verdicts & Settlements

$23.6B in punitives awarded to smoker's widow; tobacco lawyer says 'runaway verdict' won't stand

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Jurors in Florida awarded $23.6 billion in punitive damages on Friday to a Pensacola widow whose chain-smoking husband died of lung cancer.

Lawyers representing the widow, Cynthia Robinson, had argued that defendant R. J. Reynolds had deliberately concealed the health hazards of smoking. Robinson’s husband, Michael Johnson Sr., had favored Kool cigarettes. He began smoking around the age of 13. The New York Times,, the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.) and the Pensacola News Journal covered the verdict.

Jurors also awarded $16 million in compensatory damages.

The lead lawyer for Robinson was Willie Gary. says the plaintiffs lawyer is “known for his extravagant style and his private Boeing 737, ‘Wings of Justice II.’ ”

R. J. Reynolds was represented by Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. RJR vice president and assistant general counsel J. Jeffery Raborn said in a statement that the 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 New York Times notes that large verdicts against tobacco companies are often downsized on appeal. A $28 billion punitive damages verdict against Philip Morris USA was reduced to $28 million on appeal in 2011, the story says.

Robinson’s case was initially part of a class action that produced a $145 billion judgment. The Florida Supreme Court ruled in 2006 in Engle v. Liggett Group that the case was not properly certified as a class action, but individual plaintiffs could sue. Since then Florida plaintiffs have filed more than 2,000 lawsuits, the Wall Street Journal says.

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