A Florida jury has cleared the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company of a previous wrongful death ruling that originally would have cost the company $23.6 billion.
In a July, 2014 verdict that attracted national attention, an Escambia County jury awarded Cynthia Robinson that multi-billion sum for her husband’s death. Michael Johnson, Sr. passed away from lung cancer in 1996. According to his widow, he began smoking at around 13 and died at 36 years old. During this trial, Cynthia Robinson’s legal team argued that the tobacco company was negligent in informing customers like Johnson about the risks and harmful effects of smoking tobacco cigarettes.
The $23.6 billion verdict was one of the largest damages ever awarded in wrongful death tobacco cases. The tobacco company’s vice president Jeffery Raborn responded to the original ruling by declaring the damages grossly excessive and unconstitutional. R.J. Reynolds’ legal team filed post-trial motions and those damages were later reduced to a still substantial $17 million of compensation.
As of June 25, both the company’s spokesperson and Cynthia Robinson’s attorneys have not commented on this latest development in the case. Mrs. Robinson’s attorneys can still appeal this ruling.
This was the largest but not the only wrongful death lawsuit that the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company has lost. However, this company has also had success appealing some of these cases. For instance, earlier this year the same legal team from Jones Day that worked on this case cleared the company of a Massachusetts wrongful death suit. In March, R.J. Reynolds also appealed a $14.7 million verdict for the death of a South Florida. That sum was eventually reduced by 30 percent.
R.J. Reynold’s legal entanglements will likely continue as thousands of lawsuits have filed against multiple tobacco companies over the last ten years. These so-called “Engle progeny” cases stem from a Florida Supreme Court ruling in 2006. That ruling established critical findings about the dangers of smoking tobacco and misrepresentation of those risks by cigarette makers. In part, it said that smokers need only prove that there was an addiction and that smoking caused illness or death. This has created a clear path for individuals seeking wrongful death compensation from tobacco companies.