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July 21st, 2014

Florida Jury Delivers Plainly Unconstitutional Punitive Damages Award in Cigarette Case

With emotional incitement of juries, the personal injury bar continues to draw furiously on the dwindling butt of tobacco litigation in Florida, where a preposterous and plainly unconstitutional punitive damages award of $23.6 billion — that’s billion with a “b” — was rendered July 18.

As reported by Reuters, a state court “jury decided the award in a case brought by Cynthia Robinson of Pensacola. She is the widow of a chain smoker, Michael Johnson, who died of lung cancer in 1996 at 36″ after smoking for more than 20 years.

Trial testimony claimed Johnson took up smoking at age 13, nine years after the first Surgeon General’s health warning appeared on cigarette packaging in 1964.

“Nobody thinks the $23 billion is going to [stand],” Northeastern University law professor Richard Daynard told Reuters.

On due process grounds, U.S. Supreme Court precedent generally limits awards for punitive damages to less than 10 times compensatory damages in any given case.  And since compensatory damages in this case totaled $16.8 million, the punitive to compensatory ratio is nearly 1,405 to 1.

Nevertheless, Robinson’s attorney, Chris Chestnut, told the Wall Street Journal that the nearly $24 billion verdict, of which he’d get about a third or $8 billion, “isn’t an irrational or impassioned verdict.  Any rational mind would come up with the same conclusion.”

Of course, several rational minds on the Supreme Court have come to a different conclusion.  And had they not, and were there the slightest chance this absurd verdict could stand, Chestnut, who is representing about another 400 plaintiffs in cigarette lawsuits, might soon challenge Bill Gates and Carlos Slim atop Forbes’ annual list of the world’s richest people — assuming he could continue talking Florida juries into multibillion-dollar awards for punitive damages.

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