Florida appeals court throws out $16 million in punitive damages awarded in smoker's death

In a case involving a woman who died at age 52 of smoking-caused lung cancer, a state appeals court Friday tossed out a $16 million punitive-damages award against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

An Orange County jury ruled in favor of the estate of Lois Stucky in a wrongful-death lawsuit and awarded $300,000 in compensatory damages to her adult children and $16 million in punitive damages, according to Friday’s ruling by a panel of the 5th District Court of Appeal. The compensatory damages amount was reduced to $150,000 because Stucky was found partly at fault.

In the appeal, R.J. Reynolds contended that the punitive-damages amount was excessive, at least in part because it was so much larger than the amount of compensatory damages.

The panel Friday said evidence in the trial “demonstrated significant reprehensibility by Reynolds in designing its cigarettes. It used a tobacco curing process designed to make the smoke ‘smoother’ and manipulated the levels of nicotine and other additives to make its product easily inhalable, and thus, addictive. Too, its advertising efforts, particularly those advertisements produced in the early years of Ms. Stucky’s addiction, were intended to entice young people to begin smoking and to suggest, if not convince, consumers that smoking was safe, or reasonably so.”

But the panel agreed that the punitive-damages award was excessive and sent the case back to circuit court to determine a lower amount or to hold a new trial on punitive damages.

“(We) emphasize that it is not the actual dollar amount of the punitive damages award that is excessive,” the 14-page opinion said. “Punitive damages awards even greater than $16 million have been affirmed in other tobacco cases. Rather, it is the dollar amount of the punitive damages award compared to the dollar amount of the compensatory damages award that requires a remittitur (a legal process that involves setting a lower amount).”

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