Lawyers with jury awards expertise said Friday that the decision by a Florida jury to impose punitive damages against RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company will likely be rejected on appeal, according to Reuters. The damages total $23.6 billion.
The cigarette maker said that it will fight the award and it likely comes outside the boundaries for punitive damages that were created in multiple cases by the United States Supreme Court.
The award was issued by a Florida state court jury in the case filed by Cynthia Robinson from Pensacola. Robinson is the widow of a chain smoker, Michael Johnson. Johnson died from lung cancer at the age of 36 in 1996.
The trial lasted four weeks and it took the jury 11 hours of deliberation to come to the award decision. The verdict from the jury awards $7.3 million to the widow in compensatory damages and the child of the couple. Johnson’s son from a previous relationship was awarded $9.6 million.
After an additional seven hours of deliberation, the jury decided to award Robinson the added sum of $23.6 billion in punitive damages.
“Nobody thinks the $23 billion is going to remain,” said Richard Daynard, a law professor at Northeastern University. Daynard is also the chair of the Tobacco Products Liability Project at the school.
The guideline from the court is that the ratio of punitive to compensatory damages should come under a ratio of 10:1. Daynard did say that the precedent still leaves space for a punitive award of over $150 million.
“There were all these concerns about runaway awards with regard to punitive damages,” said Neil Vidmar, professor of law at Duke University. “Some are saying that nine times (the compensatory damages) is the absolute limit, but actually many times, the courts have cut that down to one or two times.”
R.J. Reynolds was sued by Robinson back in 2008 for the death of her husband. She claimed that the company conspired to hide the dangers and addictive nature of tobacco products. Beginning at the age of 13, Johnson smoked anywhere from one to three packs per day.
The original lawsuit from Robinson was part of the class-action lawsuit called the “Engle case,” which was filed back in 1994. The jury for that case awarded $145 billion to the plaintiffs in 2000. The award was rejected by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006. The court decertified the class in the lawsuit. The court did say that the plaintiffs were permitted to file the lawsuits individually and Robinson decided to do so.
“I worked with juries for several decades, and I cannot put my mind on what they are doing, but the Florida jury (in awarding a huge sum) seems to be sending a message,” Vidmar said. “This is a statement from the jury that this was an outrageous behavior by the tobacco companies.”
The company said it has already paid $114 million t0 15 plaintiffs related to the Engle case. Some $180 million in damages are currently being appealed.