The law firm Searcy Denney put a dramatic end to Tobacco’s eight-case winning streak today by reeling in an $80M verdict in Webb v. R.J. Reynolds, in Bronson, Florida. Although Tobacco has won eight of the last nine cases, on average during that period they now have lost approximately $9M per trial.
Dianne Webb v. RJR was brought by the daughter of deceased smoker James Kayce Horner. James Horner started smoking at age 17 in 1934 and smoked for more than 60 years until he died of lung cancer March 11, 1996, at age 78. Mr. Horner smoked the Reynolds brands Lucky Strike, Pall Mall, Kool, Camel, and Winston.
According to the plaintiff, Mr. Horner’s addiction caused his death. The defense contended that Mr. Horner liked to smoke and did not seriously try to quit until long after he understood the risks.
The jury found in favor of the plaintiff on all theories of recovery (negligence, defective product, concealment, and conspiracy to conceal), and allocated fault 90% to R.J. Reynolds and 10% to Mr. Horner.
The jury awarded compensatory damages of $8M.
In arguing for punitive damages, Searcy Denney’s David Sales showed the jury R.J. Reynolds’ net operating income of $1.487B but urged that the jury award only a single-digit multiple of the $8M already awarded.
Arguing to limit punitive damages to just $4M, Jones Day’s Harold Gordon told the jury that the troubling historic events described by the plaintiff could never happen again, and that the R.J. Reynolds of the 21st century was a new and changed company, under different leadership, that now was forthcoming about the risks inherent in smoking.
In rebuttal, Searcy Denney’s James Gustafson told the jury that although R.J. Reynolds claimed that “it can’t happen again, but they tried to do it over and over again, all over again, for the past two weeks. They tried to make it happen again. Reynolds does need to be deterred, because they did it here again, in this trial, right in front of your faces, every single day…well if they were different now, if they were really different now, they wouldn’t have run that 50 year-old dog & pony show that they tried to run in front of you just one more time. They wouldn’t have done it again. They ain’t no different today than they were back then. They just have to tell the truth now. They’re required to tell the truth, and they act like that’s some kind of accomplishment. And it’s not…If they were real values on their website, if they were real core values and beliefs, you would have seen them here in this courtroom. And I submit to you that’s exactly what you saw. You saw their real core values and beliefs: Blame everybody else, talk about personal responsibility, take none of your own — that’s what they did. Who were the people that authorized that defense — these people that are different now, these people that have changed?”
The jury returned a punitive damages verdict of $72M, the maximum amount requested by the plaintiff.
The $80M verdict in Webb was the second highest damage award in an Engle case. Last April, a Gainesville jury in Townsend v. R.J. Reynolds awarded $91M to Lyantie Townsend, the widow of Frank Townsend. Ms. Townsend was represented by Keith Mitnik and Greg Prysock, of Morgan & Morgan.
Cindy Naugle won a $300M verdict a year ago in Fort Lauderdale, in November 2009 ($55M in compensatory damages and $244M in punitive damages), but the Court subsequently reduced that award to $39M. Ms. Naugle was represented by Robert Kelley, Todd Falzone, and Todd McPharlin, of the law firm Kelley Uustal.
Earlier this year, in Piendle v. R.J. Reynolds, which was the last plaintiff verdict before Tobacco’s winning streak began, Searcy Denney won for Margaret Piendle $4M in compensatory damages, plus punitive damages.