US jury awards smoker's widow $23.6bn
A Florida jury has hammered America's second biggest cigarette maker with punitive damages of $23.6bn (€17.4bn) in a case brought by the widow of a long-time smoker who died of lung cancer in 1996.
The RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company case is one of thousands filed in Florida after the state supreme court threw out a $145 bn (€107bn) class action verdict in 2006. That ruling also said smokers and their families needed only prove addiction and that smoking caused their illnesses or deaths.
Last year Florida's highest court re-approved that decision, which made it easier for sick smokers or their survivors to pursue lawsuits against tobacco companies without having to prove to the court again that Big Tobacco knowingly sold dangerous products and hid the hazards of cigarette smoking.
The damages a Pensacola jury awarded to Cynthia Robinson after a four-week trial are in addition to $16.8m (€12.4m) in compensatory damages.
Ms Robinson individually sued Reynolds in 2008 on behalf of her late husband, Michael Johnson. Her lawyers said the punitive damages are the largest of any individual case stemming from the original class action lawsuit.
"The jury wanted to send a statement that tobacco cannot continue to lie to the American people and the American government about the addictiveness of and the deadly chemicals in their cigarettes," said one of her lawyers, Christopher Chestnut.
Reynolds' vice president and assistant general counsel Jeffery Raborn called the Robinson damages "grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law".
"This verdict goes far beyond the realm of reasonableness and fairness and is completely inconsistent with the evidence presented," he said.
"We plan to file post-trial motions with the trial court promptly, and are confident that the court will follow the law and not allow this runaway verdict to stand."
The lawsuit's goal was to stop tobacco companies from targeting children and young people with their advertising, said Willie Gary, another lawyer representing Ms Robinson.
"If we don't get a dime, that's OK, if we can make a difference and save some lives."
The verdict comes in the same week that Reynolds American, which owns RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company, announced it was buying Lorillard Tobacco, the country's third biggest cigarette maker, in a $25bn (€18.4bn) deal. That would create a tobacco company second only in the US to Marlboro maker Altria Group, which owns Philip Morris USA.
The deal is expected to close in the first half of 2015 and will probably face regulatory scrutiny.
In June, the US Supreme Court turned away cigarette manufacturers' appeals of more than $70m (€51m) in court judgments to Florida smokers.
Reynolds, Philip Morris USA and Lorillard Tobacco had wanted the court to review cases in which smokers won large damage awards without having to prove that the companies sold a defective and dangerous product or hid the risks of smoking.
The supreme court refused to hear another of the companies' appeals last year, wanting the court to consider overturning a $2.5 million-dollar (€1.8m) Tampa jury verdict in the death of a smoker.
Other Florida juries have hit tobacco companies with tens of millions in punitive damages in lawsuits stemming from the original class action lawsuit.
In August, a Fort Lauderdale jury awarded $37.5m (€27.7m), including $22.5m (€16.6m) in punitive damages against Reynolds, to the family of a smoker who died at 38 of lung cancer in 1995.
Lawyers for Reynolds said they would appeal, arguing that the woman knew the dangers of smoking because cigarettes had warning labels when she started. The lawyer for the woman's family said teenagers like her were targeted by tobacco companies.
Some large jury verdicts awarding tens of millions in damages to relatives of smokers have been upheld by appeal courts.