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US widow wins US$23.6 bil. in tobacco lawsuit

MIAMI -- A Florida jury has slammed the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. with US$23.6 billion in punitive damages in a lawsuit filed by the widow of a longtime smoker who died of lung cancer in 1996.

The case is one of thousands filed in Florida after the state Supreme Court in 2006 tossed 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 a Pensacola jury awarded Friday to Cynthia Robinson after a four-week trial come in addition to US$16.8 million in compensatory damages.

Robinson individually sued Reynolds, the No. 2 U.S. cigarette maker, in 2008 on behalf of her late husband, Michael Johnson Sr. Her attorneys said the punitive damages are the largest of any individual case stemming from the original class action lawsuit.

“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 one of the woman's attorneys, Christopher Chestnut.

Reynolds' vice president and assistant general counsel, J. Jeffery Raborn, called the damages in Robinson's case “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 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.”

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