R.J. Reynolds Gets Hit with $23.6 Billion Verdict


A jury in a Florida state lawsuit has awarded plaintiff Cynthia Robinson $23.6 billion in punitive damages against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., on top of $16.8 million in compensatory damages. Attorney Chris Chestnut, who tried the case, comments on the trial and the verdict.

Chris Chestnut

Chris Chestnut

Chestnut explains that this case emanated from a class action lawsuit known as the Engle case. The verdict of $145 billion in that case was set aside. Of the class action members, Cynthia Robinson had the largest single verdict in Florida history.

Taking on the tobacco giant was a formidable task, Chestnut says. Reynolds is a big, wealthy company with enormous resources. They were able to fight the case very strongly. And, Chestnut opines, the company has done a very effective job of marketing their products and of blaming individual smokers for health problems resulting from the use of tobacco.

Chestnut suggests that RJR was concealing evidence. And, Chestnut says, he had to fight the notion that tobacco was not addictive. He had jury members saying that “it was easy to quit because they had quit three times.” Chestnut said it was necessary to point out to jurors that, if they had quit smoking multiple times, smoking was addictive. Tobacco companies have spent billions in advertising, Chestnut says, to get people to smoke, but when the smokers get sick, the tobacco companies want to avoid blame for the diseases.

Chestnut also notes that the tobacco companies have been able to broaden their marketing by building strong presences in other countries.

Christopher Chestnut's law firm, The Chestnut Firm, serves the Gainesville, Jacksonville, and Atlanta areas. Chestnut was acknowledged by President Obama as a national emerging leader. Chestnut was recognized in 2010 as The Nation’s Best Advocate by the National Bar Association in its National Top 40 Lawyers Under 40 awards ceremony and was featured in Diversity Magazines as one of its Top 40 Under 40. The firm also has a mass tort / class action division, in which it has represented hundreds of clients in an $800 million action against big tobacco. The Legal Broadcast Network is a featured network of the Sequence Media Group.