As a civil liability trial lawyer for many years there is no doubt in my mind that the victims of negligent conduct on the part of civil wrongdoers should be fairly compensated for their damage. Generally speaking, we all have a duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid negligently causing harm to others. We should therefore be held accountable for any damage if we violate that duty.
But accountability has its limits and liability for damages caused by negligence should likewise be reasonable. Civil justice, just like criminal justice, should be fair. No rogue jury in a court of law should be invested with the power to punish a culpable defendant with a damage award which is grossly excessive, motivated by emotion and thereby far beyond the bounds of reason.
One of the reasons why most people profess a dislike for trial lawyers is because of all the stories they hear in the news about runaway juries sweet talked by slick trial lawyers into awarding outrageous totally out of proportion sums to Plaintiffs’ as damage awards to punish defendants they don’t like.
Recently, for example, a runaway Florida jury slapped RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. with a $23.6 billion dollars in “punitive” damages, and $16 million in “compensatory” damages award to the widow of a longtime smoker who died of lung cancer from smoking the defendant’s cigarettes.
Now, you’ll get no argument from me that the defendant was probably negligent for not adequately and properly informing consumers as to the lethal dangers of smoking, which negligence contributed in part to the cause of the decedent’s death, and therefore the company was liable to pay reasonable damages to compensate the widow’s loss for its portion of responsibility.
But $16 million in “compensatory” damages is unreasonable, and $23.6 billion in “punitive” damages is plainly outrageous, both motivated solely by anger and the fact that RJ Reynolds has deep pockets.
Civil juries should not be allowed to punish at whim defendants they happen not to like. Punitive damages in civil actions are not conducive to a fair system of justice. Punishment is for the criminal justice system.
I seriously doubt that the appellate courts will let this verdict stand, but that’s beside the point Even if they reduce it to a fraction it will probably still be excessive, and it won’t make up for all the time and money wasted in court. That jury should not have had the power to begin with.
The widow’s lawyers argued that the decedent became “addicted” to cigarettes and failed multiple attempts to quit smoking. So there is no question that he knew full well the dangers of smoking and his own negligent and irresponsible conduct was just as much or more the cause of his death than the defendant’s negligence.
Anyone who wants to quit smoking can quit smoking just like anyone who is fat can go on a diet and anyone on heroin can quit doing heroin. Of course quitting an “addiction” is not always easy but anyone who is aware of the dangers and is motivated to quit can quit.
Frankly, in my opinion, anyone who still smokes today, given what widlely is known about the lethal dangers of smoking for the last half century, is not merely negligent but out of his mind.
The fact that the decedent in this case didn’t quit is no valid excuse to punish RJ Reynolds. Its duty was to adequately warn consumers of the dangers of smoking. To the extent that it failed to do so it should be held accountable for its part in the loss.
"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," declared the widow’s lawyer.
But that is not the purpose of a civil jury deciding a civil lawsuit. Their job is not to send messages; it’s to fairly compensate the victims of negligence according to the evidence.
If people would only stop smoking, or never start in the first place, the tobacco companies would either have to find new products to sell or go out of business. Thus, the free market should be allowed to solve the smoking problem.
This case is the result of a liability lynching.