Posted on Jul 23, 2014

The widow of a long-time smoker who died in 1996 as a result of lung cancer has just been awarded by a Florida jury $23.6 billion in punitive damages against a tobacco company.

Cynthia Robinson brought an action against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. individually in 2008 on behalf of her late husband, Michael Johnson, Sr. After an extended courtroom battle, the Pensacola jury awarded the widow compensatory damages of $18.6 million—a sum far exceeded by the punitive damages.

Punitive damages are rare. Usually, a punitive damage award indicates that the jury found the defendant’s behavior reckless; the award is to punish wrongdoers for the reckless conduct, and to deter the defendant—along with others—from the same sort of conduct in the future. An attorney for Robinson explained the verdict as a statement that tobacco cannot continue to lie about the addictiveness of and about the deadly chemicals in their cigarettes.

An attorney for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. found the verdict to be beyond the realm of reasonableness and fairness. He went on to state the company planned to file post-trial motions to challenge the verdict.

Will the verdict stand? Time will tell, but in all likelihood no. Each state’s legal system works a little differently from those in other states, of course, so we cannot be sure how Florida’s case will play out during the appeals period.

Punitive damages in South Carolina are sometimes awarded when civil defendant commits egregiously wrong conduct. Often, the wrongdoer is a business whose conduct was an effort for profit. In South Carolina a similar verdict would almost certainly be reduced. In 2009 South Carolina Supreme Court reduced a punitive damages award from $15 million to $10 million, finding the original punitive damage award excessive. In that case a 17-year-old brought a bad faith claim after he was denied treatment for HIV by his health insurance carrier, when his health insurance company refused to honor his medical claims without good reason. The young man was left without health insurance coverage for nearly 20 months.

All and all, punitive damages are a good thing. One function is to rein in reckless corporate behavior for profit. It lets big business know that if they knowingly put consumers in danger for profit they could get slapped with a big punitive damage verdict.

John Holland
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John Holland is a Spartanburg Family law attorney, practicing since 2012.