A widow of a chain smoker who died of lung cancer has been awarded more than $23 billion in punitive damages by a Florida jury. The woman sued R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, claiming the company conspired to conceal cigarettes’ health dangers and addictive nature.
Cynthia Robinson sued R.J. Reynolds in 2008 over the death of her husband, Michael Johnson, who died 18 years ago, Reuters reports. He smoked one to three packs daily for more than 20 years, according to Robinson’s lawyer.
The trial lasted four weeks. After 11 hours of deliberations, the jury returned a verdict that gave $7.3 million in compensatory damages to Robinson and the couple’s child, and $9.6 million to Johnson’s son from a previous relationship, according to the article. After an additional seven hours of deliberation, the jury awarded Robinson an additional $23.6 billion in punitive damages.
The New York Times reports the company has promised a prompt appeal.
Robinson’s lawsuit originally was part of the “Engle case,” a large class-action lawsuit filed in 1994 against tobacco companies. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that factual findings in the Engle case would apply to all similar cases filed afterwards, so long as they were filed before a 2008 deadline.
Under the Engle decision, individual smokers can file their own lawsuits, and do not have to prove anything about tobacco companies’ actions. They do have to demonstrate they, or their deceased relatives, were addicted to smoking, were unable to quit and that cigarettes caused illness or death.
Before Engle, tobacco companies generally won lawsuits because it was too difficult to prove cigarettes caused a particular illness, or juries decided smokers should be responsible for their decision to use cigarettes.
Since the Engle decision was made, Florida has become a popular site for people to sue tobacco companies for damages.