This is how we should treat the big banks and the CEOs that caused the most recent economic disaster.
In a surprising move from Florida, the AP reports that a state jury has slammed the nation’s number 2 cigarette maker, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, with a $23.6 million dollar fine in punitive damages filed by the window of a longtime smoker who died of lung cancer in 1996.
Oh, wait. No, it’s not $23.6 million. The Big Tobacco company got slapped with a $23.6 billion dollar fine:
The case is one of thousands filed in Florida after the state Supreme Court in 2006 tossed out a $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 $16.8 million in compensatory damages.
Robinson individually sued Reynolds 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.
The verdict comes the same week that Reynolds America Inc., which owns the tobacco company, announced it was purchasing Lorillard Tobacco Company, the country’s number 3 cigarette maker, in a $25 billion dollar deal. The result of that would create a company that’s second only to Marlboro marker Altria Group, which owns Philip Morris USA and is based in Virginia.
That deal is expected to close in the first half of 2015 and will likely face regulatory scrutiny.
The goal of the lawsuit was to stop the tobacco companies from targeting children and young people with advertising, according to Willie Gary, an attorney representing Robinson. Gary added that “if we don’t get a dime, that’s okay” because the goal was to make “a difference and save some lives.”
Another Fort Lauderdale attorney who’s sued the tobacco companies in the past, Scott P. Schlesinger, stated that “I would rather see the tobacco industry punished to the tune of $24 billion than see them spend $25 billion to consolidate their power.” He admires the ruling, and said that Friday’s ruling was “inspiring.” He added that “I have such admiration because they followed through. They let the jury speak without restricting them. We were afraid – we asked for smaller amounts. If I get to the punishment phase (in another case), I’m going to be mighty tempted.”
Naturally, the company is screaming for mercy:
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.”
Hey, suck it up, Raborn. If you can spend $25 billion on a merger, you can spend $24 billion on a lawsuit. Yeah, you wanted that money for consolidation, but too bad. There’s plenty of times I wanted something that I couldn’t get because I had to pay for something else that was more important. Stop kvetching and start stuffing money away inside of your Joe Camel-shaped piggy bank, like everyone else when they fall on hard times.