A Florida circuit court judge significantly reduced a jury's punitive
damage award against tobacco company R.J. Reynolds from $23 billion all
the way down to $16.9 million. The original award was part of group of
Florida smokers who brought a class action lawsuit in 1994, known as the
Engle class. The class had been decertified by the Florida Supreme Court
but each member was allowed to bring their own individual lawsuit.
The $23 billion punitive damage award arose from a lawsuit brought by the
wife of a man who died from lung cancer at the age of 36. After a four-week
jury trial, the jury awarded the wife and the man's son $16.9 million
in compensatory damages and $23 billion in punitive damages. Immediately
after the trial, R.J. Reynolds filed a motion to set aside the verdict
and asked for a new trial or reduction of the damages. The company argued
that there was no evidence to support the award and that it was the result
of the jurors' "passion and prejudice" caused by the plaintiff's
attorney arguments that compared the company to murderers and drug dealers.
In reviewing the case, the circuit court judge found that although the
compensatory damages were larger than others from that original Florida
class, the evidence, including the decedent's relative youth, supported
the jury's compensatory damages award and were not the product of
passion and prejudice. In cutting down the punitive damages, the judge
found that it was "admittedly and clearly constitutionally excessive"
and that "remittitur must be granted." He suggested the large
award was the result of the jury having little to no guidance or evidence
on the amount of punitive damages to award. They were merely told that
the damages could not be so large as to bankrupt R.J. Reynolds. No information
was provided on the company's income or net worth, and so the jury
seemed to only be able to rely on inferences of the "millions, if
not billions of dollars spent" on advertising provided during the trial.
Although the punitive damages were reduced to less than 1% of the original
amount, there is likely to be a new trial on the damages in this case,
as the plaintiff and R.J. Reynolds are likely to request a new trial.
R.J. Reynolds wants punitive damages to be capped at $2.4 million. The
Engle class, which was originally awarded $145 billion before that verdict
was overturned and the class decertified, has been awarded $299 million
in individual cases. However all of those verdicts are in various stages
The attorneys are Chaikin, Sherman, Cammarata & Siegel P.C., are dedicated
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