A Florida jury awarded a record-breaking $16.8 million in compensatory damages and $23.6 billion in punitive damages to the family of a deceased longtime smoker. The judgment in Cynthia Robinson v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company is the largest amount awarded to a single plaintiff in a wrongful death lawsuit in Florida’s history.
The deceased, Michael Johnson Sr., smoked for over 20 years, from age 13 until his death at age 36. Johnson, who smoked one to three packs of cigarettes per day, died of lung cancer in 1996. His wife, Cynthia Robinson, filed suit against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, alleging that the tobacco giant caused her husband’s death and conspired to conceal the health hazards and addictive quality of tobacco products from consumers. Attorneys for Robinson used internal documents to establish that Reynolds was aware of these dangers as early as the 1950s, but the defendant continued to market cigarettes as a safe product. Robinson’s claims were bolstered by 1994 C-Span footage of tobacco industry executives asserting that tobacco products were not addictive and did not cause cancer.
The jury’s award of compensatory damages represents compensation for the plaintiff’s loss of her husband, while the punitive damages award will punish Reynolds for endangering and misleading consumers and deter the tobacco manufacturer from engaging in similar conduct in the future.
Reynolds originally filed suit in 1994 as part of a class action, which resulted in $145 billion award to the plaintiffs. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court in Engle v. Liggett Group, Inc. overturned the award and held that plaintiffs must file their tobacco-related lawsuits individually. However, the Florida Supreme Court permitted those individual plaintiffs to rely on the jury’s determinations in Engle, which included a finding that the tobacco companies were negligent and that cigarettes were a defective and dangerous product that caused diseases like lung cancer.
The ruling in Engle spawned over 2,000 individual suits, with plaintiffs succeeding in 70% of those cases. The judgment in Robinson is the largest verdict awarded to an Engle progeny case.
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