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RJ Reynolds to fight US$23.6 bil. verdict

MIAMI, Florida--The No. 2 U.S. cigarette maker is vowing to fight a jury verdict of US$23.6 billion in punitive damages in a lawsuit filed by the widow of a longtime smoker who died of lung cancer.

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. executive J. Jeffery Raborn has called the damages awarded by a jury in Pensacola, Florida “grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law.”

“This verdict goes far beyond the realm of reasonableness and fairness, and is completely inconsistent with the evidence presented,” Raborn, a company vice president and assistant general counsel, said in a statement. “We plan to file post-trial motions with the trial court promptly, and are confident that the court will follow the law and not allow this runaway verdict to stand.”

One of the widow's attorneys said the verdict Friday night sends a powerful message to tobacco companies.

“The jury wanted to send a statement that tobacco cannot continue to lie to the American people and the American government about the addictiveness of and the deadly chemicals in their cigarettes,” said Christopher Chestnut, one of the attorneys representing Cynthia Robinson.

The case is one of thousands filed in Florida after the state Supreme Court in 2006 threw out a US$145 billion class action verdict. That ruling also said smokers and their families need only prove addiction and that smoking caused their illnesses or deaths.

Last year, Florida's highest court re-approved that decision, which made it easier for sick smokers or their survivors to pursue lawsuits against tobacco companies without having to prove to the court again that Big Tobacco knowingly sold dangerous products and hid the hazards of cigarette smoking.

The damages awarded to Robinson after a four-week trial came in addition to US$16.8 million in compensatory damages awarded Thursday.

Robinson individually sued Reynolds in 2008 on behalf of her late husband, Michael Johnson Sr., who died in 1996. Her attorneys said the punitive damages are the largest of any individual case stemming from the original class action lawsuit.

The verdict came the same week that Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based Reynolds American Inc., which owns R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, announced it was purchasing Lorillard Tobacco Co., the country's No. 3 cigarette maker, in a US$25 billion deal. That would create a tobacco company second only in the U.S. to Marlboro maker Altria Group Inc., which owns Philip Morris USA Inc. and is based in Richmond, Virginia.

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In this Feb. 6, 2008 photo, a smokestack of an old R.J. Reynolds Tobacco plant frames the Reynolds American building in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. A Florida jury has slammed ...

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