The widow of a 36-year-old chain smoker who died of lung cancer 18 years ago was awarded record punitive damages of more than $23 billion by a Florida jury in a lawsuit against cigarette-making giant the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company last Friday, but the company has vowed to fight it.
A Reuters report said the judgment was the largest ever in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by one plaintiff, according to a spokesman for the woman's lawyer, Chris Chestnut.
After the death of her husband, Michael Johnson, the widow, Cynthia Robinson of Pensacola, Florida, sued R.J. Reynolds charging that the company conspired to hide the health dangers of its products.
Johnson, who worked as a shuttle bus driver had started smoking at age 13, and smoked one to three packs of cigarettes a day for more than 20 years.
"He couldn't quit. He was smoking the day he died," said Robinson's attorney.
The jury took 11 hours to arrive at a verdict granting compensatory damages of $7.3 million to Robinson and her child after a four-week trial. Johnson's son from a previous relationship was also awarded $9.6 million. They jury deliberated for seven more hours before deciding on awarding Robinson an additional $23.6 billion in punitive damages.
J. Jeffery Raborn, an executive for R.J. Reynolds, dismissed the damages as "grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law," according to The Associated Press.
One of Robinson's attorneys countered that remark, however, saying Friday's verdict sends a powerful message to tobacco companies.
The widow filed her lawsuit after the Florida Supreme Court threw out a $145 billion class action lawsuit with similar aims in 2006.