R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company must pay $23.6 billion to the widow of a man who died of lung cancer in one of the largest wrongful death verdicts for a single plaintiff in Florida state history, according to attorneys. A state jury awarded the punitive damages Friday to the estate of Michael Johnson Sr., who died in 1996 from lung cancer after years of chain smoking, attorney Christopher Chestnut told NBC News. Johnson's estate previously won a $17 million verdict as compensation for his family’s loss.
“This jury sent a message and gave 23.6 billion reasons why you can’t lie to consumers,” said Chestnut, who along with attorney Willie Gary represent 400 cases in Florida against Big Tobacco companies. R.J. Reynolds is the maker of Pall Mall and Camel cigarettes.
The Johnson case stems from a class-action lawsuit involving Miami Beach pediatrician Howard Engle, who sued the tobacco companies for misleading the public and government as to the dangers of smoking. He was awarded $145 billion in a landmark verdict in July 2000 — the largest punitive damage ever awarded in U.S. history at the time. It was overturned in 2003 after an appeals court ruled that it shouldn't have gone forward as a class-action suit. J. Jeffery Raborn, vice president and assistant general counsel for R.J. Reynolds, said the latest verdict of $23.6 billion was “far beyond the realm of reasonableness and fairness.” Raborn said the company plans to file post-trial motions to appeal the decision and verdict.
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— Jacob Passy