So many wacko stories come out of Florida that when a bit of sensibility hits the wires, I do a double take. This is a big win for one widow against Big Tobacco.
Cynthia Robinson lost her late husband, Michael Johnson Sr. to a tobacco related death in 1996. She filed suit along with a few thousand others after the Florida Supreme Court tossed out a $145 billion class action verdict in 2006. That ruling clarified that smokers and their families need only prove addiction and that smoking caused their illnesses or deaths.
It's been a long time coming for Ms. Robinson to get some satisfaction and the fight isn't done yet. Today, a Pensacola, Florida jury awarded her $16.8 million in compensatory damages and $23.6 billion in punitive damages for the wrongful death of her husband.
An appeal is expected. Jeffery Raborn, R.J. Reynolds' vice president and assistant general counsel, called the award, "grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law." He's a poor loser, but he's got to support his company's product, "This verdict goes far beyond the realm of reasonableness and fairness, and is completely inconsistent with the evidence presented," Raborn said. "We plan to file post-trial motions with the trial court promptly, and are confident that the court will follow the law and not allow this runaway verdict to stand."
Gee, you'd think after all this time and study (pdf) that shows how addictive and unhealthy tobacco is, they'd try to cut a deal and slink into the night. I suspect the widow will not accept an award that requires her silence as her lawyer had a few words, too.
The lawsuit's goal was to stop tobacco companies from targeting children and young people with their advertising, said Willie Gary, another attorney representing Robinson.It is entirely possible that the courts won't be too sympathetic to R.J. Reynolds as last June SCOTUS turned away Reynolds, Philip Morris USA Inc. and Lorillard Tobacco Co. appeals of more than $70 million in court judgments to Florida smokers. They wanted the court to find that the product needed to be proven defective or dangerous (which it is, but difficult to prove to a lawyer). They also wanted the court to find the warnings on tobacco packaging mitigated their liability; specifically, that they didn't hide the risks of smoking. That $70 million is going to make a dent on their Income Statements, but just a dent. In 2010, tobacco generated $35 billion in profits in the U.S. alone.
"If we don't get a dime, that's OK, if we can make a difference and save some lives," Gary said.
I suspect this $23.6 billion award is a revolting development to R.J. Reynolds and their competitors. To me, it's cause for celebration. I've lost both parents, my mother-in-law, my uncle, several cousins to tobacco related deaths. I have brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, more cousins and nephews currently addicted to tobacco and they can't stop smoking. All four of my brothers and sisters stopped smoking years ago, but it was a long, tough battle and they are tempted to light up every day. Kudos to all who have succeeded in breaking their tobacco habits. It was probably the toughest thing they have ever done.
Cheers to Cynthia Robinson's bitter victory.