Here's The Logic Behind A Jury's Decision To Award $US23 Billion To One Florida Woman

Cynthia Robinson Shannon Stapleton/ReutersCynthia Robinson, the widow of Michael Johnson Sr. who died in 1996 at the age of 36 of lung cancer, poses with her attorneys Christopher Chestnut, right, and Willie Gary.

A Florida jury recently awarded Cynthia Robinson $23.6 billion in punitive damages in her lawsuit against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., filed on behalf of her husband who died of lung cancer at 36 from smoking since he was 13 years old. Robinson had argued R.J. Reynolds intentionally hid the health hazards caused by its product, according to The New York Times.

Unlike compensatory damages where money is awarded to compensate for proven harm, loss, and injury, punitive damages are intended as punishment for a defendant’s especially harmful behaviour.

Although R.J. Reynolds is planning to file a motion for a reduction in the verdict, $US23.6 billion is an astounding sum of money for a jury to award one individual, far larger than the $US16.8 million in compensatory damages also awarded to Robinson. J. Jeffery Raborn, vice president and assistant general counsel for R. J. Reynolds, called the award a “runaway verdict” in a statement quoted by The New York Times.

“The damages awarded in this case are grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law,” he said. “This verdict goes far beyond the realm of reasonableness and fairness and is completely inconsistent with the evidence presented.”

Business Insider spoke with George Washington University public interest law professor John F. Banzhaf III about the significance of the jury’s decision. Banzhaf is a legal advocate with a clear anti-tobacco agenda.

Banzhaf says $US16.8 million in compensatory damages isn’t enough of a punishment, because big tobacco companies like R.J. Reynolds consider that mere “pocket change.” “The only way you’re going to get them beyond the point of, ‘Hey, this is just the cost of doing business,’ is you got to hit them with something big,” he said.

So a large award in punitive damages was necessary in this case to deter R.J. Reynolds from conduct the jury members decided was intentional and particularly egregious, according to Banzhaf. “They might be more reluctant when they’re marketing it to children, they might be more reluctant about continuing to lie and deceive and trying to trick people into it, and using advertising techniques and marketing techniques which are still aimed at kids,” Banzhaf said.

Earlier this year, Bloomberg reported that massive jury verdicts were on the rise with juries handing out three awards of more than $US1 billion in 2013 alone. That article noted that sizes of jury awards had increased after the financial crisis and possibly stemmed from anti-corporate sentiment. After all, many defendants in big product liability cases are corporations. Meanwhile, the plaintiffs are human beings like the people serving on the jury.

Anti-corporate bias is a difficult thing to detect during the jury selection process, known as voir dire, attorney Victor E. Schwartz previously told Bloomberg.

“It’s a blue-collar feeling that corporate America doesn’t really care, and that’s difficult to eliminate in voir dire,” Schwartz told Bloomberg.

The jury’s verdict of $US23.6 billion in punitive damages was the most granted in thousands of similar Florida cases, which stemmed from a 2006 ruling barring smokers from filing class-action lawsuits but allowing them to sue as individuals.

“The jury’s decision in Robinson’s case will likely lead to more punitive judgments in the billions. “What it does is it emboldens other juries because people who make up other juries will have heard about this,” Banzhaf said. “It tends to normalize it in the sense that punitive damage verdicts now over a billion dollars were probably unheard of about 20 years ago. Today, they’re becoming more common place because juries are hearing that others did it. So in that generalized sense it sets a precedent.”

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