TALLAHASSEE — An appellate court in Florida has ordered a new
trial in a cancer-related case in which tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds was ordered to
pay a record-high $23.6 billion judgment.
According to a report
by the Courtroom View Network, the decision comes in the wake of the
widow of Michael Johnson being awarded the amount by an Escambia
County circuit-court jury after it was established Johnson smoked
cigarettes for most of his life before dying of lung cancer.
In the suit, attorneys for Cynthia Johnson argued Reynolds’
executives conspired to hide the dangers and damages of cigarette
use, greatly contributing to her husband's nicotine addiction and
In rendering its ruling, the 1st District Court of
Appeal found most of the award settled on by the 2014 jury was
excessive and fueled by an improper closing argument by plaintiff
attorneys vilifying Reynolds for simply defending itself in the
Florida Justice Reform Institute President William Large told the
Florida Record he agrees with the appellate court’s order
calling for a new trial.
“The appeal case stems from the occurrence of an improper
closing argument,” he said. “It’s clear the plaintiffs’
attorneys engaged in such action and the verdict was a direct
function of that. The closing argument focused on clouding the minds
of jurors and directly led to the absurdly excessive award.”
The case stems from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision
decertifying Engle v. Liggett
Group Inc., a
class-action tobacco suit originally filed in 1994 in which the court
found individual cases could rely on certain jury findings in the
original case, including findings that tobacco companies had
conspired to hide the dangers of smoking from consumers.
Still, the appeals courts rendered
in its verdict that “[p]laintiffs may not denigrate defendants for
contesting the very facts that they, as plaintiffs, are required by
law to prove.”
The court went on to essentially use plaintiff's attorneys' own
words against them, quoting from their closing argument in which they
chastised Reynolds for failing to “come clean” on the dangers of
smoking and the methods by which the tobacco industry targeted
unsuspected consumers for much of the early 20th century.
The appellate-court opinion mentioned that a new trial on punitive
damages only came after the defense rejected its remittitur to $16
million on punitives.
The Johnson verdict dwarfs any other jury award ever rendered in
an Engle progeny case, with the largest prior
award coming in 2014 in the Hubbird vs.
Reynolds case ordered by the 11th Judicial Circuit at $28 million.
As for why something wasn't said or done earlier in the Johnson
case to curb what the appellate court now sees as unwarranted abuses
toward the defense, Large seemed dumbfounded.
“I don’t know what else counsel could have done to change
things,” he said. “Each time they tried to object, they were
overruled. It’s often times difficult for an unpopular defendant to
their get day in court. That’s why the appellate courts are often
needed to straighten things out.”