As reported by Law.com (subscription), the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld an award of $6.25 million in compensatory damages and $20.7 million in punitive damages against tobacco giants R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris in favor of a now-deceased former smoker, Judith Berger. The panel found that the punitive damages award was within constitutional limits and not excessive, given various facts presented in the case, including that Phillip Morris perpetrated a 50-year conspiracy to conceal the hazards of smoking and the addictive nature of cigarettes while seeking to addict as many Americans, particularly young Americans, as possible.
Plaintiff’s counsel and Lieff Cabraser partner Kenneth Byrd noted that his client tragically died while the case was still on appeal. “But the result today is not only a testament to the pain and suffering and loss that she long endured, but also to the courage and grit she showed in bringing her case to trial,” Byrd said. “Mrs. Berger began smoking around age 13 or 14. The jury awarded $20,760,000.14 in punitive damages. The 14 cents is a powerful reminder to all of us about how young the victims of cigarette addiction are when they begin smoking. Roughly 90% of those who become daily smokers begin smoking before the age of 18.”
In 2014, Lieff Cabraser won a trial verdict against Philip Morris on behalf of Berger, who started using cigarettes at age 14. The jury awarded compensation in the amount of $6.25 million, then added an additional $20,760,000.14 in punitive damages against the cigarette maker. The last fourteen cents of the verdict were intended as a deliberate admonition to Philip Morris reflecting the age at which Mrs. Berger began the smoking addiction that would lead to her death, an unmistakable and stark reminder of the fact that Philip Morris and companies like it relied on ensnaring children through disinformation and improper ad barrages intended to keep their deadly business thriving.
After the 2014 verdict, the trial judge substantially undercut the claims at the defendants’ urging, reducing the compensatory award to $3.75 million and eliminating the punitive damages award, hoping the parties would settle. Instead, Philip Morris appealed the reduced judgment and plaintiffs’ cross-appealed the vacatur of the fraud. In 2018, a ruling was granted in the plaintiffs’ favor but rather than pay up, as usual Philip Morris challenged the punitive damage awards as excessive.
About Kenny Byrd
A partner in our Nashville office, Kenny Byrd represents clients in mass tort cases, defective product cases and consumer fraud litigation. He is a leader in groundbreaking national litigation filed on behalf of Tennessee governments and taxpayers, among many others, against opioid manufacturers and distributors in the wake of the ongoing national opioids crisis. Kenny also serves on the Early Vetting Committee in the nationwide product defect lawsuit against 3M relating to allegations that for over a decade, 3M provided defective earplugs to men and women in the U.S. military.
In 2013 and 2014, Kenny was the lead trial attorney in obtaining several substantial jury verdicts for smokers and their families, including a $27 million jury verdict and a $41 million jury verdict. These verdicts were ranked by The National Law Journal among the Top 100 Verdicts of 2014 and paved the way to a $100 million global settlement with Big Tobacco in 2015 on behalf of hundreds of gravely injured smokers in Florida, the first smoker cases group settlement by the cigarette companies in history.
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