R.J. Reynolds Tobacco was hit on Friday with $23.6 billion in punitive damages by a Florida state court jury, one of the largest such awards in US corporate and legal history, according to a story by Richard Craver for the Winston-Salem Journal.
A jury in Escambia Court had determined the previous day that the widow of Michael Johnson Sr, Cynthia Robinson, should receive $17 million in compensatory damages in the ‘Engle’ case, even though the jury determined Johnson was 30 per cent responsible for his own illness.
Engle cases have been heard since a Florida Supreme Court decision in 2006 decertified a $145 billion class-action lawsuit filed by Howard Engle but allowed former class members to file individual lawsuits stating that cigarettes caused their respective illnesses. One hundred and eighteen Engle cases have been heard; about 8,000 cases are pending.
‘We hope this verdict will send a message to R.J. Reynolds and other big tobacco companies that will force them to stop putting the lives of innocent people in jeopardy,’ plaintiff attorney Willie Gary said in a statement on Friday.
But Jeffery Raborn, assistant general counsel for R.J. Reynolds, said in a statement on Saturday that the damages awarded in the case were ‘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.’
Meanwhile, Susannah Nesmith, writing for Bloomberg News, said the US Supreme Court had ruled in 2003 that punitive damages usually should be no more than nine times actual damages. However, the court had allowed exceptions for especially egregious conduct, she said, and judges had upheld some punitive awards above the 9-to-1 ratio.