An attorney in Florida’s record-setting tobacco case said the jury’s $23.6 billion punitive award was a response to tobacco companies’ apparent indifference to claims against them, and he hailed the verdict as an “opportunity for the tobacco industry to reconsider its conduct.”
Christopher Chestnut, part of the plaintiff’s legal team in Cynthia Robinson v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, described the award, the largest to-date in Florida’s Engle progeny cases, as a landmark win in tobacco litigation. “It changes the whole landscape,” Chestnut said.
On July 18, an Escambia County, Florida jury awarded more than $23.6 billion in punitive damages to the widow and son of Michael Johnson Sr., a smoker who died from lung cancer in 1996. The suit had originally been part of Florida’s Engle class action claim against tobacco industry defendants. However, an award for plaintiffs was vacated and the class ultimately decertified in 2006, exposing tobacco defendants to potential liability in thousands of individual claims. Tobacco companies have faced mixed results in the Engle progeny cases decided so far. However, punitive awards in earlier Engle progeny cases have generally run in the millions of dollars. Chestnut said those earlier awards, and the indifference by R.J. Reynolds to those damages, may have contributed to the award in Robinson. He pointed to defense counsel’s seemingly nonchalant reference during closing arguments to the more than $100 million R.J. Reynolds has paid in prior Engle progeny cases. “Those awards didn’t get their attention,” Chestnut said. “The $23 billion got their attention.”
Chestnut said he believed the evidence that most resonated with jurors was video of a 1994 congressional hearing in which tobacco industry leaders testified that cigarettes were not addictive. Chestnut said the testimony, contrasted with evidence of tobacco industry internal documents acknowledging the addictiveness of nicotine, established R.J. Reynolds’s complicity to cover up the dangers of smoking and supported the large punitive award. “We called them liars and called their practice for what it was: lies and greed,” Chestnut said.
Although some legal analysts, including loss-of-life compensation expert Ken Feinberg, believe the punitive award won’t be upheld, Chestnut said he believes Robinson may establish a new trend for larger verdicts. “This is an opportunity for meaningful change” in tobacco litigation, Chestnut said. “They called this a ‘runaway jury,’” Chestnut said. “They are a runaway company…. I hope this award resonates” going forward.