R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Fined $23.6 Billion by Florida Jury for Man's Smoking-Related Death

A jury came back with a gigantic $23.6 billion fine for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in a Florida man's smoking-related death on Friday. The jury said it wanted to send a message to tobacco companies that they're still legally responsible for selling products that can lead to death, but R.J. Reynolds' lawyer said the fine was far too big. The amount is 75 percent of the company's American market capitalization, or the amount of money a company has in outstanding shares, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

R.J. Reynolds promised to appeal the decision. The company's lawyer, Jeffery Raborn, said in a news statement that the damages were not just way too high, but illegal, according to The New York Times.

The damages awarded in this case are grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law. This verdict goes far beyond the realm of reasonableness and fairness and is completely inconsistent with the evidence presented. 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.

The jury awarded $17 million to Cynthia Robinson, the widow of Michael Johnson Sr. Johnson died in 1996 at the age of 36 after 20 years of smoking. That money was awarded in compensatory damages, an amount intended to directly compensate for a loss.

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Robinson told the Times she thought she'd heard the word million at first when the jury announced the punitive damages.

When they first read the verdict, I know I heard "million," and I got so excited. Then the attorney informed me that was a ‘B’ — billion. It was just unbelievable.

Johnson, who chain-smoked Reynolds-made Kool cigarettes, died of lung cancer. The jury held him 30 percent responsible for his own death, the Winston-Salem Journal said. The $26.3 billion, separate from the amount awarded to Johnson's widow, was in punitive damages. That money is meant to force Reynolds to change its business practices.

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The verdict was partly based on evidence showing tobacco companies knew about the dangers of smoking long before they started warning the public about what impact smoking could have on health.

In a well-known case cited by the Journal, Philip Morris was fined a record-breaking $28 billion in punitive damages in 2002 for similar reasons. But those damages were eventually dropped to $28 million, not billion.

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