A Florida jury on Friday returned one of the largest verdicts ever against a tobacco company. The decision from the panel of six jurors ordered R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company to pay over $23 billion in punitive and compensatory damages to the widow of a man who died of lung cancer in 1996.
Cynthia Robinson claimed that smoking killed her husband, Michael Johnson, and that the maker of Camel cigarettes and other popular brands was negligent in informing him that nicotine was addictive and that smoking could cause cancer. Michael Johnson began smoking when he was 13 years old and smoked one to three packs of cigarettes a day for over 20 years.
"He couldn't quit. He was smoking the day he died," Chris Chestnut, one of Robinson’s lawyers, told Reuters.
After deliberating for 15 hours, the jury sided with Robinson.
"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," Chestnut told USA Today.
According to CNN, Chestnut said he had to prove to at least five of the jurors, who were 45 or younger, that tobacco companies operated differently when Johnson first started smoking.
"The environment today is completely different than it was in the '50s and '60s, when Robinson's husband was alive," he said, adding that the company knew then that its products were addictive and contained harmful chemicals, but continued to market them as safe.
J. Jeffery Raborn, vice president and assistant general counsel for R. J. Reynolds, released a statement after the verdict promising to appeal the decision.
"The damages awarded in this case are grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law,” it read.
"This verdict goes far beyond the realm of reasonableness and fairness and is completely inconsistent with the evidence presented," Raborn wrote. "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.”
Robinson was part of a successful class-action lawsuit against R.J. Reynolds in 2006 in which a jury awarded the plaintiffs $145 billion. The Florida Supreme Court later ruled that the plaintiffs’ cases were too dissimilar and overturned that verdict. But, the court said, the individual plaintiffs were still permitted to bring separate lawsuits against the company.
Robinson filed her lawsuit in 2008.
Although the tobacco company has vowed to appeal the new verdict, another one of Robinson's attorney, Willie Gary, said she should still feel victorious. He said the lawsuit’s goal was to stop the company from targeting children and young people with its ads.
"If we don't get a dime, that's OK, if we can make a difference and save some lives," he said.
Photo Sources: Yahoo News, Wikimedia