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Widow of Chain Smoker Awarded $23.6bn: Is There an Equivalent British Case?

Monday, 8 September 2014

Cynthia Robinson, the widow of a chain smoker, has been awarded $23.6bn (£14bn) in punitive damages following judgment in Florida.

RJ Reynolds Tobacco, the company which manufactured the cigarettes her husband had smoked, has been ordered to pay the sum as compensation following Cynthia Robinson’s filing of a lawsuit against the company in 2008 alleging wrongful-death.

Background to the Billion Dollar Damages Claim

Lawyers representing the widow had argued that RJ Reynolds Tobacco had been negligent in not informing sufficiently its customers of the health risks associated with tobacco smoke. The proposition advanced was that Michael Robinson contracted lung cancer and subsequently died, as a result of the RJ Reynold’s negligence.

Mrs Robinson’s lawyers made it clear that he simply couldn’t quit, and that he was smoking the day he died. The jury, after a lengthy four-week trial and a total of 18 hours deliberation, returned a verdict whereby, in addition to the sum accorded to Cynthia Robinson, $7.3m (£4.3m) was awarded to the couple’s child and $9.6m (£5.6m) was awarded to the deceased’s son from a previous relationship.

Largest Individual Damages Award

Such a set of awards of putative damages are the largest, of any individual case, stemming from the original class-action lawsuit known as the “Engle case” which was filed in 1994 against American tobacco companies.

Although the original award of $145bn (£85bn) (at the time the largest in US history) was eventually thrown out by the Florida Supreme Court, the court granted that each plaintiff in the (too disparate) class could file individual lawsuits.

Large Damages Awards in the English Courts

Large sums of compensation, in the form of damages, have been awarded in English courts. A record-breaking award was set by a car crash victim being awarded £23m in 2012; and in January 2014 the NHS lost a case and was ordered to pay £24m to a thirteen year old girl who had been negligently given an injection of glue into her brain leaving her with severe brain damage.

However, tobacco litigation in the UK has been far less successful than in the US; 2003 saw the first case to even reach trial, in McTear v Imperial Tobacco. The Court of Session in Scotland ruled that Mr McTear had known what he was doing when he had taken up smoking; that he had understood the risks.


In short, jurisprudence in the UK adheres to a more individualistic approach whereby consumers are held to account for their own consumption choices and the consequences which follow. This is in contrast to the US, where juries have traditionally been keen to award large sums of compensation following the establishment of negligence.

Nevertheless, RJ Reynolds will appeal the decision and verdict. It is also notable that such appeals in the industry are often successful, and therefore that the award is certainly not set in stone.

For specialist advice regarding personal injury claims contact Peter Gourri today by email or telephone 0207 611 4848.

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