Fort Lauderdale, FL—The nation’s two largest tobacco companies were hit with $12 million in punitive damages last Friday, wrapping a $20 million total jury award at trial over a Florida woman’s cancer death. Landi v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, et al., 2008-CV-025814.
The $12 million in punitives includes $7 million imposed against R.J. Reynolds and $5 million imposed against Philip Morris for their role in the lung cancer of Marion Landi, 69.
Friday’s decision followed two days of proceedings on punitives and came came six days after jurors found a decades-long scheme by the tobacco giants to hide the dangers of smoking helped hook Landi on cigarettes and eventually led to her lung cancer and her 1999 death. In that earlier phase of trial, jurors were found to have awarded Landi’s family $8 million in compensatories after a dispute arose over inconsistent answers on the verdict form.
Jurors, sitting in the state’s 17th Circuit, deliberated for less than an hour Friday evening before reaching their decision on punitives.
Herbert Landi’s attorney, Scott Schlesinger, of Schlesinger Law Offices P.A., suggested a range of between $24 million and $32 million in punitives, or between $12 million and $16 million imposed against each company, during closings Friday.
The case is one of thousands of Florida’s so-called Engle progeny lawsuits against the nation’s tobacco companies. They stem from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision decertifying Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a class-action tobacco suit originally filed in 1994. Although the state’s supreme court ruled that Engle-progeny cases must be tried individually, it found plaintiffs could rely on certain jury findings in the original case, including the determination that tobacco companies had placed a dangerous, addictive product on the market and had conspired to hide the dangers of smoking through much of the 20th century.
While the trial’s first phase focused on class membership, last week’s punitive phase centered on whether the corporations’ recent conduct and wholesale changes to the tobacco industry mitigated against a hefty punishment.
The tobacco companies argued that strict federal regulation of cigarettes, combined with advertising restrictions, massive payouts, and tobacco industry transparency on smoking’s health effects ensured the days of conspiracy and concealment were over.
During Friday’s closing arguments, King & Spalding’s Randall Bassett, representing Reynolds, reminded jurors the company has published extensive information on both the 20th century tobacco conspiracy and on smoking’s health hazards. Additionally, Bassett said, Reynolds has invested more than $1 billion in developing a safer cigarette.
These changes, Bassett argued, combined with federal regulation, meant an imposition of punitives served no deterrent purpose. “I would suggest to you that no punitive award is needed for Reynolds to stop concealing information based on everything you’ve seen…over the last 20 years,” Bassett said. “An award of punitive damages is not needed to make people more aware of the dangers of smoking, or for Reynolds to admit that smoking is dangerous or addictive.”
But Schlesinger argued federal regulation was ineffective and said tobacco companies continued with a business model of addicting smokers to cigarettes, despite their dangers.
Schlesinger reminded jurors of testimony suggesting Reynolds and Philip Morris could make nicotine levels in cigarettes so low that smoking would not be addictive. “They know what the level is… below which (nicotine) won’t sustain addiction,” Schlesinger said. “But they’re not going to give up the cash cow, they’re not going to give up that nicotine.”
The $20 million is the third largest award in 14 CVN-covered Engle trials taken to verdict so far this year. In February, another set of jurors in Fort Lauderdale handed down a $41.7 million verdict against Reynolds at trial over a smoker’s lung disease. And last month, a jury in the state’s 12th Circuit awarded $21.5 million for the lung cancer death of a 54-year-old smoker in a trial against both tobacco companies.
Email Arlin Crisco at email@example.com.
Herbert Landi is represented by Scott Schlesinger, Jonathan Gdanski, Steven Hammer, and Brittany Chambers, of Schlesinger Law Offices, P.A.
R.J. Reynolds is represented by Randall Bassett, Kathryn Lehman, Val Leppert, and Lindsay Macon, of King & Spalding.
Philip Morris is represented by Andrew Brenner, of Boies, Schiller & Flexner.
Not a subscriber?