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R.J. Reynolds' case goes up in smoke, loses lawsuit, must pay $23.6 billion

From ashes to ashes, dust to dust
From ashes to ashes, dust to dust
Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Chalk one up for the little guys. According to a CNN report today, tobacco kingpin R. J. Reynolds lost a lawsuit to Florida widow Cynthia Robinson and will have to fork over $23.6 billion. Representatives for R. J. Reynolds called the verdict “excessive and outrageous” and are planning to appeal.

The company has repeatedly won lawsuits levied against them on the grounds that people willingly smoke cigarettes and the tobacco company should not be held responsible for something that they are not forcing people to do. They simply make the product available and, if a person chooses to buy and consume the product, the manufacturer should not be held responsible.

But these losing cases have largely been more recent after plainly-worded harsh warnings began appearing on cigarette packs. The first mild warnings appeared when the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965 ordered that packs must warn buyers that “cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health”. Now the labels clearly state “cigarettes contain carbon monoxide”, letting smokers know precisely what they are paying money to inhale.

Robinson’s late husband, Michael Johnson, lived and smoked before the warnings were so clear cut. Court documents obtained by CNN revealed that Johnson smoked from the age of 13 until he died of lung cancer at the age of 36 in 1996. Robinson sued because she believes that R. J. Reynolds’ “negligence” in properly labeling cigarettes as killers was a direct cause of Johnson’s death.

The jury agreed and stunned R. J. Reynolds’ huge arsenal of corporate lawyers with the staggering amount of the judgment. According to the Pensacola News Journal, the jury awarded Robinson “more than $16 million in compensatory damages on Thursday and awarded $23 billion in punitive damages on Friday.”

R. J. Reynolds’ Vice President J. Jeffery Raborn said, “"The damages awarded in this case are grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law. This verdict goes far beyond the realm of reasonableness and fairness and is completely inconsistent with the evidence presented." In response to R. J. Reynolds’ vow to appeal, Robinson’s attorney Willie Gary said, "If we don't get a dime, that's OK, if we can make a difference and save some lives.”

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