$18.5 million jury award against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco ruled ‘excessive’

Updated Nov 30, 2016

A 66-year-old Delray Beach woman won’t get the $18.5 million a Palm Beach County jury said she deserves for losing her mother to lung cancer caused by cigarette-smoking.

In a ruling on Wednesday, the 4th District Court of Appeal tossed out the 2014 jury verdict against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. — one of the largest handed a cigarette-maker in county history. The appeals court called the amount awarded to Gwen Odom for the 1993 death of her mother “excessive.”

“No matter how strong the emotional bond between an adult child and a decedent parent may be, an adult child who lives independent of the parent during the parent’s smoking related illness and death is not entitled to multi-million dollar compensatory damages award,” Judge Dorian Damoorgian wrote for a three-judge panel.

The West Palm Beach-based court sent the case back to Palm Beach County Circuit Court for a judge to either reduce the amount or order that a new trial be held solely to determine how much Odom should receive. A trial would be ordered unless both sides agree on an amount.

Odom, a former Palm Beach Post news assistant, said she was disappointed and perplexed by the decision. The jury, which heard roughly three weeks of testimony, was aware she was an adult when her mother died and that they lived in separate homes. Her attorney, Mariano Garcia, said he is weighing various options, including a possible appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, but otherwise declined comment.

The case is among thousands spawned statewide when the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 threw out a $145 billion verdict against tobacco companies in a 1994 Miami-Dade County class-action lawsuit. The high court ruled that smokers or their families must prove their unique damages at separate trials. While roughly two dozen have gone to trial in Palm Beach County, hundreds are still pending.

Odom argued that the loss of her 58-year-old mother, Juanita Thurston of Boynton Beach, was devastating. Garcia convinced the jury that the tobacco giant should pay for spinning a web of lies about the dangers of cigarette smoking — lies that ensnared Thurston and hooked her on a habit that killed her.

The jury awarded Odom $6 million to compensate her for the loss of her mother, but that amount was reduced by $1.5 million because the jury found Thurston 25 percent to blame for her death because she continued to smoke. The jury socked R.J. Reynolds with another $14 million in punitive damages.

Based on decisions in other wrongful death cases filed by adult children who lost their parents, the appeals court said the award was simply too much. It and other appellate courts have upheld multi-million dollar awards for men and women who have lost spouses. But, Damoorgian wrote, the relationship between adult children and their parents who don’t live under the same roof isn’t analogous and such eye-popping verdicts aren’t justified.

“Although the evidence established that (Odom) and her mother had a very close and unique relationship, at the time of Ms. Thurston’s illness and death, (Odom) was not living with Ms. Thurston and was not financially or otherwise dependent on her,” he wrote. “Instead, (Odom) was married with two children of her own and Ms. Thurston was living with her long-time partner.”

Overall, smokers or their families have won the majority of the lawsuits that have gone to trial statewide. Tobacco companies have appealed all unfavorable verdicts.