$23.6 Billion Jury Award in Smoking Case Unlikely to Survive Appeal

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Florida jury shocked the tobacco and legal world last week when it ordered a leading cigarette maker to pay nearly $24 billion in punitive damages to the family of a deceased smoker. But the enormous award is unlikely to hold up on appeal.


R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company is expected to challenge the verdict that featured $23.6 billion in punitive damages. In addition to that sum, the jury granted compensatory damages totaling $16.9 million in the case brought by Cynthia Robinson, the widow of chain smoker Michael Johnson, who died 18 years ago of lung cancer at age 36. But it was the eye-popping punitive award that garnered attention.


“Nobody thinks the $23 billion is going to remain,” Richard Daynard, a law professor at Northeastern University and chair of its Tobacco Products Liability Project, told Reuters. Daynard added that the appeals court could dramatically scale back the punitive award to something in the neighborhood of $150 million, closer to the 10-1 ratio between punitive and compensatory damages that the U.S. Supreme Court has considered reasonable in liability cases.


Not that there is a clear-cut rule for what the amount should be in the Robinson case, Professor Catherine Sharkey, a tort law expert at New York University School of Law, said. There is “no mathematical bright line rule,” she told Reuters. For instance, the $2.5 billion levied against ExxonMobil for the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill was cut to $500 million, about a 1-1 ratio between punitive and compensatory damages.


Robinson brought the case in 2006 against R.J. Reynolds, which made the Kool cigarettes her husband had smoked. In the suit, she argued that the company had deliberately covered up the health effects of the cigarettes it sold. According to the suit, Johnson began smoking at age 13, often lighting one cigarette from the butt of the previous one. 

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Record $23.6 Billion Judgement against RJ Reynolds Unlikely to Stand: Experts (by Gertrude Chavez-Dreyfuss and David Ingram, Reuters)

Jury Awards $23.6 Billion in Florida Smoking Case (by Frances Robles, New York Times)

RJ Reynolds Vows to Fight $23.6B in Damages (by Jennifer Kay, Associated Press)

Illinois Court Reinstates $10 Billion Verdict over Deceptive Marketing of “Low Tar” and “Light” Cigarettes (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

With 1,200 Deaths a Day, Tobacco Companies Finally Agree to Publish Ads Admitting They Lied about Dangers of Smoking (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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