The so-called Engle progeny tobacco litigation has been percolating away in Florida for nearly a decade now, producing a steady stream of mostly predictable verdicts and appeals with no end in sight.
Now a state court jury has broken the monotony in a big way.
Jurors in Pensacola awarded plaintiff Cynthia Robinson a whopping $23.6 billion in damages on Friday, sticking R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company with the largest single-plaintiff wrongful death verdict in Florida history. The verdict follows a four-week trial and an additional $17 million compensatory damages award issued on Wednesday.
Robinson claimed that RJR’s deceit about the dangers of smoking led to her husband Michael Johnson’s lung cancer and early death in 1996.
RJR was represented at trial by a team from Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice including Randal Baringer, Jonathan Engram and Geoffrey Beach. The company immediately vowed to appeal the verdict, calling it “grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law.”
“We plan to file posttrial motions with the trial court promptly and are confident that the court will follow the law and not allow this runaway verdict to stand,” RJR vice president and assistant general counsel J. Jeffery Raborn said in a statement.
The lead lawyer behind Friday’s outsized verdict is Willie Gary of Gary, Williams, Parenti, & Watson, the Florida plaintiffs lawyer known for his extravagant style and his private Boeing 737, “Wings of Justice II.”
“We hope that this verdict will send a message to RJ Reynolds and other big tobacco companies that will force them to stop putting the lives of innocent people in jeopardy,” Gary said in a statement. Christopher Chestnut of the Chestnut Firm in Atlanta and Howard Acosta, a St. Petersburg solo, also represent the plaintiff.
The case is one of more than 3,000 individual smoker lawsuits pending in Florida state and federal courts in the wake of Engle v. Liggett Group, a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision that vacated a record $145 billion class action verdict against the tobacco companies. The court decertified the Engle class but gave some of the jury’s key findings preclusive effect in future cases, allowing plaintiffs to bypass proving that smoking causes many diseases and that the defendants hid the dangers of smoking.
Friday’s eye-popping verdict comes just a month after the cigarette makers lost their latest bid to rein in the sprawling litigation at the U.S. Supreme Court. The defendants have consistently argued that Florida’s courts are denying them due process in the way they’ve interpreted the Engle ruling and adopted the Engle jury’s findings. So far—including after multiple attempts to persuade the Supreme Court to weigh in—the argument hasn’t gotten them anywhere.
As for plaintiff Cynthia Robinson, Friday’s verdict seems to have surprised her as much as anyone. She told The New York Times that she initially thought the jury had awarded her multiple millions, until her lawyer told her: “That was a ‘B’—billion.”