Florida Jury Awards Man $35 Million in Wife's Smoking DeathDec 29, 2015
A Florida jury has awarded $25 million in punitive damages, in addition to $10 million in compensatory damages, to the husband of a long time smoker who died of lung cancer, in his lawsuit brought against cigarette makers R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Philip Morris USA Inc.
Each tobacco company must pay half-$12.5 million-of the punitive damages. The day before the verdict was reached, an attorney representing the husband told the jury that the cigarette companies had deceived the man’s wife for 40 years, according to Law360.
The attorney said changes the companies have made in their practices were not voluntary, but were the result of a series of government lawsuits and a 2009 act of Congress giving regulatory power over the tobacco industry to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These changes, however, came after the woman had died. The attorney said "there is no evidence whatsoever that the tobacco companies have done anything to mitigate what they've done in the past. You will see that they are the same companies. If they have changed, they probably don't put down in writing every thought that they have anymore."
Before the verdict was rendered, an attorney for R.J. Reynolds told jurors that this is a different tobacco company than it was decades ago, according to Law360. "It's a different tobacco company than what you've been hearing about for the past couple of weeks." She argued that awarding punitive damages to the husband might be excessive.
The husband had already been awarded $10 million in compensatory damages for the loss of his wife. In this phase, the jury determined that each of the cigarette companies was 47 percent responsible for the woman’s death and the woman herself bore the remaining six percent of the fault, Law360 reports. The woman began smoking at age 14 and, at that time, she had no idea that smoking could be dangerous to her health, the attorney told the jury. She smoked two packs a day for 41 years. The attorney described her smoking to the jury: she smoked first thing in the morning, she smoked in bed despite the fire hazard and after burning bed linen and pillows. She continued to smoke even after being diagnosed with cancer. Her attempts to quit smoking or cut down were unsuccessful. She tried to quit cold turkey and also tried fake cigarettes, hypnosis, and nicotine gum. The attorney estimated that the woman had taken about 6 million puffs on a cigarette over the 41 years she smoked.
The lung cancer diagnosis came in 1996 and the woman died on Thanksgiving of that year, leaving behind her husband and two children.
This case is one of thousands of “Engle progeny suits,” arising from the Engle class action against tobacco companies. Dr. Howard Engle, a pediatrician and lifelong smoker, was one of the plaintiffs in the class action who said they had been turned into nicotine addicts by the tobacco industry and that cigarette makers did not warn them of the health risks of the habit. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court decertified the class in 2006 and overturned a $145 billion verdict, but it allowed up to 700,000 people who could have won judgments to rely on the jury's findings to file suits of their own. These findings include conclusions that smoking causes certain diseases and that tobacco companies concealed the dangers of smoking, according to Law360.