By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO Fla. (Reuters) - A Florida jury has awarded the widow of a chain smoker who died of lung cancer punitive damages of more than $23 billion in her lawsuit against the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, the nation's second-biggest cigarette maker.
The judgment, returned on Friday night, was the largest in Florida history in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by a single plaintiff, according to Ryan Julison, a spokesman for the woman's lawyer, Chris Chestnut.
Cynthia Robinson of the Florida Panhandle city of Pensacola sued the cigarette maker in 2008 over the death of her husband, Michael Johnson.
Johnson, a hotel shuttle bus driver who died of lung cancer in 1996 at age 36, smoked one to three packs a day for more 20 years, starting at age 13, Chestnut said.
"He couldn't quit. He was smoking the day he died," the lawyer told Reuters on Saturday.
After a four-week trial and 11 hours of jury deliberations, the jury returned a verdict granting compensatory damages of $7.3 million to the widow and the couple's child, and $9.6 million to Johnson's son from a previous relationship.
The same jury deliberated for another seven hours before deciding to award Robinson the additional sum of $23.6 billion in punitive damages, according to the verdict forms.
Lawyers for the tobacco company, a unit of Reynolds American Inc [RAI.N] whose brands include Camel cigarettes, could not immediately be reached for comment.
But J. Jeffery Raborn, vice president and assistant general counsel for R.J. Reynolds, said in a statement quoted by the New York Times that the company planned to challenge "this runaway verdict." Such industry appeals are often successful.
Chestnut countered, "This wasn't a runaway jury, it was a courageous one."
Robinson's lawsuit originally was part of a large class-action litigation known as the "Engle case," filed in 1994 against tobacco companies.
A jury in that case returned a verdict in 2000 in favor of the plaintiffs awarding $145 billion in punitive damages, which at the time was the largest such judgment in U.S. history.
That award, however, was tossed out in 2006 by the Florida Supreme Court, which decertified the class, agreeing with a lower court that the group was too disparate and each smoker smoked for different reasons.
But the court said the plaintiffs could file lawsuits individually. Robinson was one of them.
The Florida high court also let stand the jury's findings that cigarettes are defective, dangerous and cause disease, and that Big Tobacco was negligent, meaning those issues did not have to be re-litigated in future lawsuits.
(The story was refiled to correct the breakdown of recipients for compensatory damages in the fifth paragraph)
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Sandra Maler)