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Close but no Cigar: Tobacco Company hit with $23.6bn in Punitive Damages

A Florida jury has awarded the widow of a chain smoker $23.6bn (£13.86bn) in damages against RJ Reynolds – America’s second-largest tobacco company and manufacturer of Camel and Pall Mall cigarettes – after he died from lung cancer in 1996.

The eye-watering figure was produced by the jury following a four week trial in Miami, where it was successfully argued that RJ Reynolds were negligent in failing to inform consumers about the dangers of smoking. 11 hours of deliberations granted $7.3m to Mr. Johnson’s widow Cynthia Robinson and a further $9.6m to Johnson’s son from a previous relationship before punitive damages were calculated at $23.6bn.

Lighting a Fuse

This verdict has angered many smokers and non-smokers whose reaction to the news that “[Mr. Johnson] couldn’t quit. He was smoking the day he died” was one of condemnation as opposed to sympathy; an understandable reaction when the dangers of smoking are common knowledge. Mr. Johnson’s three separate attempts to quit were outlined before the court yet the jury still held that by the time he had become a chain smoker it was too little too late; RJ Reynolds’ marketing was to blame and not Mr. Johnson’s ignorance.

The Legal Battle

Ms. Robinson’s legal team are said to have swayed the jury in presenting a C-SPAN television broadcast from 1994 to the court. The broadcast, which is linked below, shows tobacco industry executives categorically stating that their products are neither harmful nor addictive. This was followed by a series of RJ Reynolds internal memos that demonstrated that tobacco magnates knew otherwise from the 1960s at least. This contradiction, coupled with examples of advertising and marketing deliberately targeted at young consumers are almost certainly responsible for such a colossal payout. Watch the video to see executives from America’s 7 largest tobacco corporations perjuring themselves before Congress:

Youtube – C-SPAN Broadcast

The RJ Reynolds’ Response

Somewhat staggered by the amount awarded to the claimant, RJ Reynolds were unavailable for comment following the verdict. Their official statement described the award as ‘grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law’ and the Vice President has since confirmed to the New York Times that RJ Reynolds’ legal team is already preparing to file post-trial motions. Vice President Mr. Raborn stated that “[they are] confident that the court will follow the law and not allow this runaway verdict to stand.”

Mr. Raborn’s confidence is well-placed with industry appeals against such high payouts being notoriously successful. Philip Morris USA, America’s no. 1 tobacco manufacturer and Reynolds’ main competitor, had a decision made by a Los Angeles jury overturned 9 years after it was made. A California appellate court diminished the $28bn award to a more agreeable $28m; a figure that generates a different debate. What is an appropriate valuation of a human life?