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Smoker’s widow gets $23bn in damages

Orlando, July 20 (Reuters): A Florida jury has awarded the widow of a chain smoker, who died of lung cancer 18 years ago, record punitive damages of more than $23 billion in her lawsuit against the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, the second-biggest cigarette maker in the US.

The judgment, returned on Friday night, was the largest in Florida history in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by a single plaintiff, according to a spokesperson for the woman’s lawyer, Chris Chestnut.

Cynthia Robinson of the Florida Panhandle city of Pensacola sued the cigarette maker in 2008 over the death of her husband, Michael Johnson, claiming the company conspired to conceal the health dangers and addictive nature of its products.

Johnson, a hotel shuttle bus driver who died of lung cancer in 1996 at age 36, smoked one to three packs a day for more 20 years, starting at age 13, Chestnut said.

“He couldn’t quit. He was smoking the day he died,” the lawyer said yesterday.

After a four-week trial and 11 hours of deliberations, the jury returned a verdict granting compensatory damages of $7.3 million to the widow and the couple’s child, and $9.6 million to Johnson’s son from a previous relationship.

The same jury deliberated for another seven hours before awarding Robinson the additional sum of $23.6 billion in punitive damages, according to the verdict forms.

Lawyers for the tobacco company, a unit of Reynolds American Inc whose brands include Camel, Kool, Winston and Pall Mall cigarettes, could not immediately be reached for comment.

But J. Jeffery Raborn, vice-president and assistant general counsel for R.J. Reynolds, said in a statement quoted by the New York Times that the company planned to challenge “this runaway verdict”.

Chestnut countered: “This wasn’t a runaway jury, it was a courageous one.”

He said jurors appeared to have been swayed by evidence of the company’s aggressive marketing of tobacco products, particularly promotions aimed at young people, and by its claims that it was Johnson’s choice to smoke.

“They lied to Congress, they lied to the public, they lied to smokers and tried to blame the smoker,” he said.

Robinson’s lawsuit originally was part of a large class-action litigation known as the “Engle case” filed in 1994 against tobacco companies.

A jury in that case returned a verdict in 2000 in favour of the plaintiffs awarding $145 billion in punitive damages, which at the time was the largest such judgment in US history.

That award, however, was tossed out in 2006 by the Florida Supreme Court, which decertified the class, agreeing with a lower court that the group was too disparate and that each consumer had smoked for different reasons.

But the court said the plaintiffs could file lawsuits individually. Robinson was one of them.

 
 
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