$35 Million Verdict Against Tobacco Companies in Smoker’s Death

On December 22, 2015, a Florida jury returned a verdict of $25 million in punitive damages against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Philip Morris USA Inc., adding to $10 million in compensatory damages, in a lawsuit brought by the husband of a longtime smoker who died of lung cancer.

The Miami jury hit each tobacco company with $12.5 million in punitive damages. The previous day, an attorney representing the widower told the jury that the companies had deceived the man’s wife for 40 years, according to Law360.

But the attorney said changes the companies have made were not voluntary, but rather, were the result of a series of government lawsuits and a 2009 act of Congress putting the tobacco industry under the regulatory power of 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.”

The husband was awarded $10 million in compensatory damages for the loss of his wife. The jury found each of the cigarette companies 47 percent responsible for the woman’s death. The jury found that the woman herself bore the remaining 6 percent of the fault, Law360 reports. She started smoking at age 14 and smoked two packs a day for 41 years. When she began smoking, she had no idea that smoking could be bad for her, the jury was told. The attorney described her smoking habits: she smoked first thing in the morning, she smoked in bed after burning bedding, and she even smoked after being diagnosed with cancer. She attempted to quit cold turkey, the attorney said, and she tried fake cigarettes, hypnosis, and nicotine gum in an effort to quit or cut back. The attorney estimated that she took about 6 million cigarette puffs over the 41 years that she smoked.

She was diagnosed with lung cancer in February 1996 and died on Thanksgiving of that year, leaving behind her husband and two children.

This case is one of thousands arising from the landmark Engle class action against tobacco companies. Dr. Howard Engle, a lifelong smoker, was one of the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit who said they had been turned into nicotine addicts by a tobacco industry that did not warn them of the health risks of the habit. 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 hid smoking’s dangers, according to Law360.

An attorney for R.J. Reynolds told jurors that this is a different tobacco company than it was decades ago, and it longer conceals that cigarettes are dangerous and addictive. “It’s a different tobacco company than what you’ve been hearing about for the past couple of weeks.” She also said that awarding more money—punitive damages—to the husband may be excessive.

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