A Florida jury awarded a smoker's widow one of the largest ever legal wins against a tobacco company — a whopping $23.6 billion in punitive damages.
Cynthia Robinson sued the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, maker of Camel cigarettes and other tobacco products, for not informing her husband that cigarettes are addictive and can cause lung cancer. (Via Getty Images)
Robinson told NBC: "They concealed information that was harmful to a human for years."
Robinson's husband, Michael Johnson, died in 1996 of lung cancer at just 36 years old after smoking for most of his life. (Via Getty Images)
This award is the highest amount a jury in Florida has ordered since 2006. But, why such a high amount? (Via Getty Images)
Again, the jury ruled that Robinson be given the $23.6 billion in punitive damages. Punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant and are paid to the plaintiff. Then, $16.8 million was awarded for compensatory damages — damages for covering what was lost — in this case Robinson's husband. She gets those too.
A New York Times article included a quote from a high profile lawyer who explained a verdict this pricey is not typical. “There have not been multibillion-dollar punishments in the Engle cases for one reason: We are afraid to ask for them. We are afraid of what will happen in the appellate process,”
There aren't a lot of details out yet about what went on in that courtroom to make the jury decide on such a high amount. Robinson's lawyers are speaking out though.
NPR reports attorney Christopher Chestnut said, "The jury wanted to send a statement that tobacco cannot continue to lie to the American people and the American government about the addictiveness of ... the deadly chemicals in their cigarettes."
And attorney Willie Gary told WPTV, "We've made a difference already. I think less people are gonna smoke. I think that the tobacco companies are going to get their act together. They're gonna make safer cigarettes. We know they can. They'll just make a little bit less money, but they'll save a whole lot of lives and that's what its all about."
Obviously, R.J. Reynolds is not thrilled about the verdict. Pensacola News Journal obtained a statement from Reynold's vice president Jeffery Raborn saying, "This verdict goes far beyond the realm of reasonableness and fairness, and is completely inconsistent with the evidence presented."
CNN pointed out this case used to be part of a class-action lawsuit that was overturned by the Florida Supreme Court. In its 2006 ruling, the court cleared the way for individual lawsuits against tobacco companies.
R.J. Reynolds reps say they plan to appeal the ruling.