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On July 18th, an Escambia County jury awarded Pensacola resident Cynthia Robinson a $23.6 Billion dollar judgment against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company stemming from the 1996 death of her late husband, Michael Johnson, Sr. According to the lawsuit, Mr. Johnson passed away after smoking Kool brand cigarettes for more than 20 years. Ms. Robinson claimed that the company deliberately concealed the health hazards caused by its product and was also essentially negligent in not informing him that nicotine is addictive and smoking can cause lung cancer.
The trial lasted for four weeks with the jury deliberating for 18 hours before coming back with an initial award of $17 million in compensatory damages (i.e. – monetary amount found necessary to help plaintiff replace what was lost), and then later with $23.6 Billion in punitive damages (i.e. – monetary damages intended to punish the offender).
Following the jury decision and award, J. Jeffery Raborn, Vice President and assistant general counsel for R. J. Reynolds, stated, “The damages awarded in this case are grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law.” R.J. Reynolds intends to immediately appeal the decision.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
Negligence is defined as a failure of a party to act with a level of care that someone of “ordinary prudence” would have exercised under the same circumstances. This includes both actions and omissions to act when there is a duty present. In order to prove that a party is negligent, the plaintiff must show that there was a duty to act and there was a breach of that duty which ultimately caused damages to alleged harmed party.
Most of the jurors on the case were 45 years of age and younger, which called for the plaintiff to show and prove how the tobacco industry once presented its products to consumers before the enactment of present day public awareness campaigns on its risks an dangers.
Ms. Robinson was represented by Christopher M. Chestnut, based in Georgia, and Willie E. Gary and Howard Acosta, both based in Florida. Mr. Chestnut believed that jury was persuaded by 1994 C-Span footage of the tobacco industry executives purporting that smoking did not cause cancer and was not addictive, and also by 60 year-old internal documents showing R.J. Reynolds knew otherwise.
HOW DOES THIS AFFECT YOU?
Many of us have been raised during the recent period of tobacco companies and independent grass roots organizations being more vocal and forthcoming about the ramifications from smoking, though this has not always been the case. Before choosing to partake of certain “risky” behaviors, it’s important to understand the effects of such decisions, specifically on your health.
Though it was argued and accepted by the jury that R.J. Reynolds was negligent in not informing consumers about the damages that may be caused from smoking prior to the death of Mr. Johnson in 1996, many consumers are now fully abreast of just how addictive nicotine can be and how smoking can adversely affect your health and may not find themselves as successful in claims against tobacco companies for similar damages.
Rashida Maples, Esq. is Founder and Managing Partner of J. Maples & Associates (www.jmaplesandassociates.com). She has practiced Entertainment, Real Estate and Small Business Law for 9 years, handling both transactional and litigation matters. Her clients include R&B Artists Bilal and Olivia, NFL Superstar Ray Lewis, Fashion Powerhouse Harlem’s Fashion Row and Hirschfeld Properties, LLC.
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