Orlando, FL—R.J. Reynolds was hit with a $16 million punitive verdict Thursday for its role in the lung cancer death of a 53-year-old Florida woman who began smoking when she was a teenager. Coates v. R.J. Reynolds, 1997-CA-004541.
The verdict comes a day after jurors in the state’s Ninth Judicial Circuit found Reynolds liable on defective design claims at trial over the 1999 death of Lois Stucky, who began smoking at 17, and continued for decades.
Thursday’s punitive verdict far exceeds the $10 million Ogle Law’s William Ogle requested in punitives during arguments on that phase of trial.
Jurors also awarded $300,000 in compensatory damages to Stucky’s children on Wednesday. Their apportionment of 50% of fault to Stucky herself will potentially cut the compensatory portion of the award in half, post-verdict.
The case is relatively unusual among Florida’s tobacco litigation in that it is not one of the state's thousands of so-called Engle progeny lawsuits against the nation’s tobacco companies. Unlike Engle progeny cases, in which negligence and product liability claims have already been decided against tobacco company defendants, plaintiffs in the Stucky case were required to prove their negligence and design claims against Reynolds.
While jurors Wednesday found in favor of Stucky’s family on the design claim against Reynolds, they cleared the tobacco giant on claims of negligence, conspiracy, and fraud after an eight-day trial on the issues.
During arguments on punitives Thursday, Jones Day’s Dennis Murphy maintained that changes to Reynolds’ over the last two decades mitigated against imposing harsh financial punishment. Murphy told jurors that the Reynolds of today has tried to make safer alternatives to traditional cigarettes, while informing the public that its cigarettes are dangerous. “That’s why we say that, in this case, punitive damages aren’t necessary to deter or punish the Reynolds of today,” Murphy said. “They’re a changed company.”
But Ogle contended many of the changes to Reynolds were the result of federal regulation, lawsuits, and societal shifts, rather than the company-driven choices. And Ogle reminded jurors the same types of cigarettes that jurors found defective were still being sold by Reynolds. “This company that’s changed is still marketing these cigarettes without change,” Ogle said.
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Plaintiffs are represented by Ogle Law LLC’s William Ogle and Wiggins Childs Patanzis Fisher & Goldfarb's, Joshua Gale.
The defense is represented by Jones Day’s Dennis Murphy.
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