The recent punitive damages judgement in a Florida courtroom against the second-largest tobacco company is unlikely to stand according to lawyers with specific expertise in awards given by a jury.
The judgement against the tobacco company, which they plan to contest, may fall outside the boundaries for punitive damages that the U.S. Supreme Court has laid down in a series of cases, the lawyers told Reuters.
Cynthia Robinson of Pensacola, FL received the $23.6 billion judgement from tobacco juggernaut RJ Reynolds. Robinson is the widow of a chain smoker, Michael Johnson, who died of lung cancer in 1996 at 36.
“Nobody thinks the $23 billion is going to remain,” said Richard Daynard, a law professor at Northeastern University. Daynard is also the chair of the university’s Tobacco Products Liability Project.
Daynard added that because of the constitutional guarantees of due process, the Supreme Court has been reluctant to allow punitive damages that far outweigh compensatory damages on the same case. In general, the judgment should follow 10:1 ratio of punitive and compensatory damages.
The court precedent, though, still leaves room for a punitive award of more than $150 million, Daynard said.
“There were all these concerns about runaway awards with regard to punitive damages,” said Neil Vidmar, professor of law at Duke University. “Some are saying that nine times (the compensatory damages) is the absolute limit, but actually many times, the courts have cut that down to one or two times.”
Robinson’s lawsuit originally was part of large class-action litigation against tobacco makers known as the “Engle case,” filed in 1994..
In 2000, the jury issued a verdict in the favor of the plaintiffs and awarded them with $145 billion in punitive damages against the tobacco makers, which was the largest judgement of this kind in U.S. history.
However, that judgement was rejected in 2006 by the Florida Supreme Court. It found that such a large group of people who died from tobacco use all smoked for different reasons and were too unlike to be classed together. However, the court allowed each member of the suit to file against the tobacco makers individually, which is what Cynthia Robinson did.
“I worked with juries for several decades, and I cannot put my mind on what they are doing, but the Florida jury (in awarding a huge sum) seems to be sending a message,” said Vidmar. “This is a statement from the jury that this was an outrageous behavior by the tobacco companies.”
“You’re going to have a lot more cases where juries could find themselves similarly outraged,” he said. “The reluctance of the tobacco companies to settle these cases, thinking they can handle the cases as a matter of course, may be a mistake.”