America’s second biggest cigarette maker has vowed to fight a Florida jury verdict of $23.6bn (£13.8bn) in punitive damages in a case filed by the widow of a smoker who died of lung cancer.
RJ Reynolds Tobacco executive J Jeffery Raborn said the damages awarded to widow Cynthia Robinson by a Pensacola jury are “grossly excessive” and Reynolds will appeal.
But Ms Robinson’s lawyer Christopher Chestnut said the award sends a powerful message to tobacco companies that they “cannot continue to lie... about the addictiveness of and the deadly chemicals in their cigarettes”.
The RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company case is one of thousands filed in Florida after the state supreme court threw out a $145bn (£85.3bn) class action verdict in 2006. That ruling also said smokers and their families needed only prove addiction and that smoking caused their illnesses or deaths.
Last year Florida’s highest court re-approved that decision, which made it easier for sick smokers or their survivors to pursue lawsuits against tobacco companies without having to prove that tobacco giants knowingly sold dangerous products.
The damages a Pen sacola jury awarded to Cynthia Robinson after a four-week trial are in addition to $16.8m(£9.8m) in compensatory damages.
Ms Robinson individually sued Reynolds in 2008 on behalf of her late husband, Michael Johnson, who died in 1996. Her lawyers said the punitive damages are the largest of any individual case stemming from the original class action lawsuit and aimed to stop tobacco companies from targeting children and young people.
“If we don’t get a dime, that’s OK, if we can make a difference and save some lives,” said Willie Gary a member of Ms Robinso’s legal team.
“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 and the deadly chemicals in their cigarettes,” added Mr Chestnut.
Reynolds’ vice president and assistant general counsel Jeffery Raborn called the Robinson damages “grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law”.