Jury Awards $23.6 Billion in Punitive Damages to Widow of Spouse Who Died of Lung Cancer
A jury just hit R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. with a $23.6 billion punitive damages award in a lawsuit filed by the widow of a long-term smoker who died of lung cancer in 1996. The lawsuit is one of thousands of lawsuits that have been filed in Florida since the Florida Supreme Court tossed out a $145 billion class action verdict. The court in the prior class action case also ruled that plaintiffs only needed to prove that the product caused addiction and illness or death.
In 2012, the Florida Supreme Court reaffirmed this ruling which made it easier for smokers and their families to seek damages against tobacco companies. In reaffirming its prior ruling, the court effectively relieved smokers and their loved ones from the obligations of proving that tobacco companies knew they were selling a dangerous product and that the companies covered up the potential harm.
The assessment of punitive damages followed a jury verdict three weeks earlier that awarded the widow $16.8 million in compensatory damages. The attorneys in the tobacco injury lawsuit indicated that the verdict was the largest yet of the claims that were previously part of the class action lawsuit in Florida.
Predictably, representatives of the tobacco company criticized the verdict as “grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law.” A R.J. Reynolds spokesman also indicated, “The verdict goes far beyond the realm of reasonableness and fairness, and it is completely inconsistent with the evidence presented.” The company has indicated it will fight what it referred to as a “runaway verdict.”
Recent prior appeals of large verdicts in Florida against large tobacco companies have not gone well for the defendants. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected appeals by cigarette manufacturers of $70 million in court judgments in favor of Florida smokers. Phillip Morris USA Inc., Reynolds and Lorillard Tobacco Co. The tobacco companies challenged these judgments because the plaintiffs were not required to prove the companies’ product was dangerous and defective nor that the companies covered up the risks associated with smoking. Additionally, the state’s highest court refused to hear an appeal brought by tobacco companies in 2013 that sought to overturn a verdict of $2.5 million in a wrongful death case brought by a smoker’s family.
While the $23.6 billion punitive damage award is the largest punitive damage award among this wave of cases, there have been other recent large verdicts within Florida, including verdicts challenged and upheld by appellate courts:
- A jury awarded $37.5 million against Reynolds last August to the family of a smoker who passed away of lung cancer in 1995. The award included $22.5 million in punitive damages.
- In September, an appellate court upheld an award of $35 million, which included $25 million in punitive damages against Lorillard on behalf of a wife whose spouse died of lung cancer in 1996. The tobacco company challenged the verdict as “excessive”, but the appellate court rejected this conclusion.
- In June 2013, an appeals court upheld a $20 million punitive damage award to another spouse of a smoker who died. The award was upheld after a prior jury award of $40.8 million was reversed as “excessive”.
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