In 2006, a Florida Court of Appeal established that individuals could not band together into a class to file a class action lawsuit against tobacco companies for misleading consumers and misrepresenting the dangers their products pose. So, instead of a few cases, courts across the country are hearing hundreds of cases that pit long-term heavy smokers against tobacco conglomerates like Philip Morris. One such case concluded in mid-July with a jury awarding the family of Michael Johnson, Sr. a staggering $23.6 billion in compensatory and punitive damages from R.J. Reynolds, the second largest cigarette maker in the country.
Johnson, who reportedly smoked several packs a day for more than twenty years, died in 1996 at 36 from lung cancer. He picked up the habit when he was about thirteen, well before the risks associated with smoking were known to the public. His case is part of what has been called the “Engle progeny,” which comprises thousands of individuals and their families who, after the Florida decision mentioned earlier, may pursue tobacco lawsuits individually rather than as a class.
Johnson’s verdict is the highest awarded to any of the Engle progeny, and is emblematic of the doggedness with which plaintiffs and their legal representatives have pursued compensation for years of misleading advertisements and the concealment of smoking’s many hazards. During the trial, jurors were shown videos of executives from a tobacco company in the early 1990s claiming that cigarettes are neither harmful nor addictive. They were then presented with “60-year-old internal documents showing the company knew otherwise.” After the announcement of the verdict, Johnson’s widow’s attorney said, “The jury just got it. The jury was outraged with the concealment and the conspiracy to conceal that smoking was not only addictive but there were deadly chemicals in cigarettes.”
Attorneys representing R.J. Reynolds call the Johnson case a “runaway verdict,” claiming that the damages awarded are “grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law.” While the jury’s decision probably will not be reversed during the appeals process, the award may be reduced. A similar lawsuit in California against Philip Morris in 2002 resulted in a $28 billion verdict. That amount was cut down in 2011 to $28 million.
Despite a potential change in the award amount, attorneys are optimistic about the trend in tobacco lawsuits. One lawyer in Florida argues, “This verdict is important because it goes back to an ongoing saga that goes back to 1990. People have been filing suit one by one, and we have been winning about 70 percent of them.”