$23 Billion Punitive Damage Award Against Tobacco Company Cut Down to $16.9 Million

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.Tobacco Litigation Award

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 of appeals.

The attorneys are Chaikin, Sherman, Cammarata & Siegel P.C., are dedicated to standing up to corporations that have harmed innocent people through their negligence or intentional wrongs. If you or someone you love have been injured as a result of a company's negligent or reckless behavior, please do not hesitate to call us for a free consultation.