Reynolds Told to Pay $29.1 Million to Smoker’s Widow

By Bob Van Voris May 20 (Bloomberg) — R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. must pay $29.1 million to Connie Buonomo, the widow of a Florida man who started smoking at age 13 and died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in 2008, a jury in Fort Lauderdale said.  The unanimous verdict today by six state jurors includes $4.1 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages. After deliberating for five hours at the end of a three-week trial, the jurors found R.J. Reynolds 77.5 percent responsible for Matthew Buonomo’s illness and death at age 80. They said Buonomo was 22.5 percent responsible.  “I’m happy for Connie and the Buonomo family,” said the widow’s lawyer, John Uustal. “We’ll see if RJR changes the way they do things.” Jurors in Florida have delivered more than $230 million in verdicts for smokers and their families since February 2009. The plaintiffs in the cases sued after the Florida Supreme Court decertified a state-wide smokers’ class action in 2006.  “Certainly we’re disappointed with the jury’s findings in this case,” said R.J. Reynolds spokesman David Howard. “We will appeal.”  In the 2006 decision, the Florida high court ruled that smokers can’t sue as a class and overturned a $145 billion punitive damages verdict in the case. The court said that former class members in the Engle case, named for lead plaintiff Howard Engle, can sue individually. Individual Plaintiffs. The court ruled that individual plaintiffs can use jury findings from a 2000 trial in the Engle case in their cases. The findings include that the tobacco companies sold defective products, concealed the dangers of smoking and acted negligently. R.J. Reynolds, the second-biggest U.S. cigarette maker, is one of the companies fighting the Engle ruling in state and federal appeals courts. The companies claim that applying the findings in the individual cases deprives them of their right to a fair trial. With today’s verdict, the companies have won three and lost 16 of the post-Engle cases. Howard said the use of the factual findings is “clearly reversible error and will ultimately be overturned by the appellate courts.” In its verdict, the jurors rejected arguments by R.J. Reynolds that Buonomo died of congestive heart failure, a condition not caused by smoking, rather than COPD, which is. Lawyers for R.J. Reynolds also claimed that Buonomo chose to smoke and could have quit if he had wanted to. Reynolds is a unit of Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based Reynolds American Inc. Biggest Verdict in the biggest post-Engle verdict to date, another Fort Lauderdale jury in November awarded almost $300 million, including $244 million in punitive damages, against Philip Morris, to Cindy Naugle, an ex-smoker with emphysema. Florida Circuit Judge Jeffrey E. Streitfeld, who also presided over the Buonomo case, called the award grossly excessive and cut it to $38.9 million.   Streitfeld directed jurors today not to give interviews about deliberations without his prior permission. The case is Buonomo v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., CACE- 08019612, Florida Circuit Court (Fort Lauderdale).

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