Wrongful Death Lawsuit for Smoking Cigarettes?

There has been a lot of media coverage buzzing around the recently decided wrongful death lawsuit of Cynthia Robinson v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.  This lawsuit involved a widow, Cynthia Robinson (“Ms. Robinson”), whose husband died of lung cancer because R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company was negligent in failing to inform consumers of the hazards of smoking cigarettes.

Following a nearly four-week trial, a Florida jury deliberated for 15 hours to eventually determine that the tobacco company was negligent in informing Ms. Robinson’s husband, Michael Johnson Sr. (“Mr. Johnson”), that smoking causes lung cancer and that nicotine is highly addictive.  This is one of the largest settlements for a single Plaintiff in Florida state history.  The award will be given to the estate of Mr. Johnson who died in 1996 of lung cancer after years of chain smoking.  Mr. Johnson’s estate will also be given $17 million verdict as compensatory damages for his family’s loss.

The Robinson v. R.J. Reynolds case was once part of the historic Engle v. Liggett Group class-action suit. In that case, a jury awarded damages of more than $145 billion to a group of people with smoking-related disease and family members of deceased smokers.

The Florida Supreme Court later overturned that ruling but said that individual plaintiffs could file suits using the Engle jury’s findings.

Ms. Robinson filed her individual suit in 2008.

During the four-week trial, lawyers for Mr. Johnson’s widow, Ms. Robinson, argued that the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company was negligent in failing to inform consumers of the dangers of consuming tobacco.  As a result, this led to Mr. Johnson contracting lung cancer from smoking cigarettes.  They said Mr. Johnson had become “addicted” to cigarettes and failed multiple attempts to quit smoking.

Willie Gary (“Mr. Gary”), Ms. Robinson’s attorney said, “RJ Reynolds took a calculated risk by manufacturing cigarettes and selling them to consumers without properly informing them of the hazards.  As a result of their negligence, my client’s husband suffered from lung cancer and eventually lost his life.  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.”

Mr. Gary later stated, “this jury sent a message and gave 23.6 billion reasons why you can’t lie to consumers.”  Jeffery Raborn (“Mr. Raborn”), Vice President and Assistant General Counsel for R.J. Reynolds, said the latest verdict of $23.6 billion was “far beyond the realm of reasonableness and fairness.” Mr. Raborn said the company plans to file post-trial motions to appeal the decision and verdict.  Mr. Raborn stated that, “R.J. Reynolds is confident that the court will follow the law and not allow this runaway verdict to stand.”

The outcome of Robinson v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company is undetermined. Is Mr. Raborn for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company accurate in calling the damages “grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law?”

Michael Kraemer is a partner with Kraemer, Manes & Associates, a law firm headquartered in Pittsburgh, serving all of Pennsylvania, with attorneys focusing on business law, employment law, litigation, personal injury, and civil issues. For more information please visit www.lawkm.com.

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