by Dr. Boyce Watkins
In a lawsuit of epic proportions, a Florida jury has awarded a widow a stunning $23.6 billion dollars in a verdict against RJ Reynolds Tobacco. The case is significant, not only because of the dollar amount, but also because it may affect millions of others who’ve seen their lives come to an end due to smoking-related illnesses.
The punitive damages were supplemented by another $16 million dollar award to the estate of Michael Johnson Sr. The trial lasted four weeks, during which Cynthia Robinson sued the company for negligence due to their failure to warn consumers of the dangers of smoking. As a result, Johnson became ill with lung cancer and eventually died.
The man tried to quit smoking for years, and could not. The verdict was announced in Escambia County after just 15 hours of deliberations.
“RJ Reynolds took a calculated risk by manufacturing cigarettes and selling them to consumers without properly informing them of the hazards,” said Robinson’s lawyer Willie Gary said in a statement.
Willie Gary is one of the most respected African American lawyers in the country. He is often compared to the late Johnny Cochran for his ability to win massive verdicts, in many cases on behalf of black plantiffs. He is also known for being a tremendous benefactor for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
“As a result of their negligence, my client’s husband suffered from lung cancer and eventually lost his life,” Gary said.
“We hope that this verdict will send a message to RJ Reynolds and other big tobacco companies that will force them to stop putting the lives of innocent people in jeopardy.”
Of course the company plans to appeal, since a verdict of this size could bankrupt the organization.
Vice president and assistant general counsel J. Jeffery Raborn said that the verdict was “far beyond the realm of reasonableness and fairness.”
This lawsuit may be just the beginning of the company’s worries. Over half a million Americans die from smoking-related illnesses every year, according to health experts. About 18 percent of Americans smoke today, which is a drop from 42 percent during the 1960s.
I spent a year studying the history of tobacco lawsuits for a research project I was working on 15 years ago with Professor G. William Schwert at The University of Rochester. I was astonished at how hard the industry worked to defraud consumers and convince them to ingest a product that would lead to their demise. They actually remind me of another fraudulent organization, the NCAA, which consistently morphs its public image in a poor effort to persuade consumers that they do not undermine the public good.
During the 1940s and beyond, the tobacco industry was known for using sinister tactics to keep the public from understanding the dangers of smoking. They even went as far as hiring doctors and researchers to tell smokers that tobacco was not only fashionable, but even healthy. They funded artificial “think tanks” to conduct research that “just happened” to conclude that smoking wasn’t all that bad, and it took years to make even the smallest advancements in the quest for public safety.
Other institutions that could be compared to the tobacco industry might be the prison industrial complex and slavery itself. In both cases, a harmful business model was allowed to exist because there was so much money involved that even those on the inside of these capitalist behemoths knew they were living a lie. But once the money gets that big, even those running the economic machine are almost entirely helpless when it comes to correcting it.
Over the decades, many lawsuits have been filed against big tobacco, but most of them didn’t get anywhere due to tobacco companies having the ability to throw massive resources at the problem. In many cases, plantiffs were worn out in court, intimidated and delayed until they ran out of money. It wasn’t until years later that powerful attorneys like Gary were able to build strong lawsuits against the industry.
The verdict will go down in history as one of the most impactful of all time. To put it into perspective, $23.6 billion is more than nine times greater than the net worth of Oprah Winfrey. In fact, a person in possession of this much money would earn more money in interest IN ONE WEEK than LeBron James earns in an entire season. In other words, that’s A LOT of money.
Congratulations to Attorney Gary for his success. He deserves it.