Federal Judge Orders R.J. Reynolds To Pay Smoker $15M in Punitive Damages
A federal judge in Kansas City last week ordered tobacco company R.J. Reynolds to pay $15 million in punitive damages to a former smoker, the Wall Street Journal reports (Fairclough, Wall Street Journal, 6/24). The case marks the first time a federal judge -- rather than a jury -- has awarded punitive damages in a case against a tobacco company, according to the Tobacco Products Liability Project, a group that coordinates lawsuits against the tobacco industry (AP/Richmond Times-Dispatch, 6/22). A Kansas City jury in February found that Reynolds was negligent and had concealed the negative effects of smoking, awarding $196,416 in compensatory damages to David Barton, a 67-year-old man whose legs were amputated as a result of peripheral vascular disease linked to smoking. The jury also authorized the court to impose punitive damages; the $15 million award was three times what Burton's lawyers had requested (Wall Street Journal, 6/24).
The "sheer magnitude" of Reynolds' wealth made it necessary for the award to be "high enough to have at least some impact in order to carry out the statutory purposes of punishment and deterrence," U.S. District Court Judge John Lungstrum wrote in his ruling (Wohl, Reuters/Los Angeles Times, 6/22). In addition, Lungstrum wrote that Reynolds' "concealment" of the addictiveness of cigarettes was "particularly nefarious" (AP/Richmond Times-Dispatch, 6/22). Reynolds' Executive Vice President and General Counsel Charles Blixt called the award "excessive and unwarranted," adding, "We will continue to aggressively defend these cases" (Wall Street Journal, 6/24). Reuters/Los Angeles Times reports that the size of the award may be basis for an appeal by Reynolds. According to Daniel Donahue, a lawyer for Reynolds, Kansas state and federal laws require that punitive damages be "proportionate" to compensatory damages. "We don't believe there is a legitimate basis for awarding any punitive damages in this case," Donahue said (Reuters/Los Angeles Times, 6/22).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.