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Multi-Billion Dollar Award in Tobacco Lawsuit

Aug 13, 2014

A Florida jury awarded a staggering $23 billion judgment late Friday against R.J. Reynolds in the death of a chain smoker who died of lung cancer at age 36.

Michael Johnson Sr. died in 1996 after smoking for more than 20 years. His widow, Cynthia Robinson, of Pensacola, sued R. J. Reynolds, maker of Kool, her husband’s brand of cigarettes. The suit argued that the company had deliberately concealed the health hazards of its product, The New York Times reports. After a four-week trial the jury deliberated over two days, first awarding $17 million in compensatory damages and then, late Friday, awarding $23.6 billion in punitive damages.

Michael Johnson, a longshoreman and hotel shuttle bus driver, began smoking around age 13. His wife said he often lit a fresh cigarette with the butt end of another. “He really did smoke a lot,” she said, according to the Times.

The Johnson case is one of thousands of cases arising from a 2006 court decision ruling that smokers could not file class-action suits but were free to bring suit individually. That decision reversed a $145 billion verdict in a class action awarded in 2000 on behalf of Howard Engle, a Miami Beach pediatrician. The Times reports that an appeals court voided the award, saying it was excessive and the cases of individual smokers were too disparate to be considered as a class.

“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,” an attorney for Cynthia Johnson said. He felt the jury was persuaded in part by 1994 C-Span footage of tobacco industry executives claiming smoking was not addictive and did not cause cancer, as well as by 60-year-old internal documents showing the company knew otherwise, the Times reported.

An attorney for R.J. Reynolds called the damages “grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law.” The company will appeal, and some appeals have been successful. In October 2002, a Los Angeles jury awarded $28 billion in punitive damages against Philip Morris USA. In August 2011, an appeals court reduced the punitive damages to $28 million, according to the Times.

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