By Susanna Capelouto and Janet DiGiacomo
(CNN) — A Florida jury awarded a widow $23.6 billion in punitive damages in her lawsuit against tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, her lawyer said.
Cynthia Robinson claimed that smoking killed her husband, Michael Johnson, in 1996. She argued R.J. Reynolds was negligent in not informing him that nicotine is addictive and smoking can cause lung cancer. Johnson started smoking when he was 13 and died of lung cancer when he was 36.
The jury award Friday evening is “courageous,” said Robinson’s lawyer, Christopher Chestnut.
“If anyone saw the documents that this jury saw, I believe that person would have awarded a similar or greater verdict amount,” he said.
The Escambia County trial took four weeks and the jury deliberated for 15 hours, according to the Pensacola News Journal. The verdict included more than $16 million in compensatory damages, the newspaper said.
Chestnut said five of the six jurors who heard the case were 45 or younger, which meant he had to show hem how the tobacco industry presented its product before the public awareness campaigns on tobacco risks and dangers in the 1990s, he said.
In a statement, J. Jeffery Raborn, vice president and assistant general counsel for R. J. Reynolds, said, “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,” said Raborn. “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.”
Robinson’s case was once part of a class-action lawsuit in which a jury had awarded $145 billion in damages, but in 2006 the Florida Supreme Court overturned that verdict. In its ruling, however, the state’s high court opened the door for individual lawsuits against tobacco companies.
Robinson filed her lawsuit in 2008.
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