R.J. Reynolds Vows to Fight $23.6B 'Runaway Verdict'

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. will fight a jury's decision to award a Florida woman whose husband died of lung cancer $23.6 billion in punitive damages.

The eye-catching sum is in addition to $16.8 million in compensatory damages the Pensacola jury also awarded the woman, Cynthia Robinson, on July 18. Robinson's husband Michael began smoking at 13 years old and died at 36, according to media reports.

According to Seeking Alpha, the lawsuit was filed six years ago after a Florida Supreme Court ruling stated that smokers and their families need only prove that addiction and smoking caused their illnesses or deaths to be eligible for damage payments. The record ruling was reapproved last year.

"This verdict goes far beyond the realm of reasonableness and fairness, and is completely inconsistent with the evidence presented," said J. Jeffery Raborn, R.J. Reynolds' vice president and assistant general counsel. "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."

According to The Associated Press, the $23.6 billion in punitive damages almost certainly will be significantly reduced on appeal, if not thrown out entirely, legal experts and industry analysts said. In another major tobacco trial, a $28-billion verdict in a 2002 case in Los Angeles was reduced to $28 million after appeals.

Some legal experts have suggested the jurors in Florida, home to most of the nation's remaining lawsuits against Big Tobacco, may have been savvy enough to know the sum won't stand, but did it anyway to make a point, according to the AP report.

"Regardless of the rhetoric surrounding this case, the damages awarded are grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law," Raborn told the AP.

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. is owned by Winston-Salem-based Reynolds American Inc. 

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