Late last Friday, a Florida jury awarded $26 billion in punitive damages against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in the death of a chain smoker who died of lung cancer at age 36.
The suit was brought by Cynthia Robinson, widow of Michael Johnson Sr., who died in 1996. He had smoked for more than 20 years, beginning around age 13. The lawsuit argued that Reynolds had deliberately concealed the health hazards of Kool cigarettes, Johnson’s brand, The New York Times reports. The jury first awarded $17 million in compensatory damages and then the staggering $23.6 billion in punitive damages.
The Johnson case is one of thousands of cases arising from a 2006 court decision ruling that smokers could not file class-action suits because the individual cases were too disparate to be considered a class, but cases could be brought individually. The 2006 decision reversed a $145 billion verdict in a class action awarded in 2000 on behalf of Howard Engle, a Miami Beach pediatrician. An appeals court voided the award, saying it was excessive.
An attorney in the Johnson case said, “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,” according to the Times. He felt what helped persuade the jury was 1994 C-Span footage of tobacco industry executives claiming smoking was not addictive and did not cause cancer, and also 60-year-old internal documents showing the company knew the risks, the Times reported.
An attorney for R.J. Reynolds called the damages “grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law.” The company said it will appeal. 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.