Smoking can kill you — and it can also be extremely expensive, especially if you are one of the nation’s largest cigarette companies. That was the takeaway from a stunning jury verdict handed down in Florida late Friday afternoon, in which the widow of a chain smoker who died of lung cancer at age 36 won a staggering $23.6 billion judgment against tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds.
The massive amount was awarded entirely as punitive damages, that is, as punishment against the cigarette maker for knowing about the life-threatening hazards of smoking, yet misleading the public about them.
“When they first read the verdict, I know I heard ‘million,’ and I got so excited,” said Cynthia Robinson, widow of chain smoker Michael Johnson, who died of cancer in 1996. “Then the attorney informed me that was a ‘B’ — billion. It was just unbelievable.”
Johnson was so hopelessly hooked on smoking that he was smoking on the very day he died, according to Robinson’s attorney, Chris Chestnut. Making his living driving a hotel shuttle bus, Johnson was smoking at least one and as many as three packs of cigarettes every day from the time he was 13 years old, the lawyer said.
The jury earlier awarded Robinson, a Pensacola, Florida, woman who filed the smoking lawsuit in 2008, $17 million in compensatory damages — that is, damages to make up for the loss of her husband — before slamming R.J. Reynolds with the massive 11-figure monetary penalty.
The amount was the largest in Florida history awarded to a single plaintiff in a wrongful death lawsuit.
In 2006, a federal appeals court ruled that smoking lawsuits could not be filed as class actions, because smokers themselves are too diverse to be treated as a “class” under the law.
But the ruling said that individuals may still file smoking lawsuits, of which thousands have been filed in the years since that decision, according to The New York Times.
R.J. Reynolds makes Camel cigarettes as well as Kool cigarettes, the brand Johnson had been smoking for most of his life, and several other brands.
“The jury was outraged with the concealment and the conspiracy to conceal that smoking was not only addictive but that there were deadly chemicals in cigarettes,” said Chestnut, who during the four-week trial showed the jury 1994 footage of tobacco industry executives testifying in congressional hearings that smoking was not addictive and did not cause cancer — even though their own studies from 60 years ago showed that smoking does indeed carry those dangers.
But a lawyer for R.J. Reynolds called the multi-billion damage verdict “grossly excessive” and said the company would appeal to have the judgment lowered.