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R.J. Reynolds to fight widow's $23.6B legal win

The nation's second-largest cigarette maker is fighting to reduce a multibillion dollar award it was ordered to pay a smoker's widow.

It was among the biggest verdicts ever for a single plaintiff in a wrongful death lawsuit, CBS News correspondent Elaine Quijano reports.

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Cynthia Robinson
AP

The six jurors decided that tobacco company R.J. Reynolds should pay Cynthia Robinson $17 million in compensatory damages, and $23.6 billion in punitive damages for the death of her husband, Michael Johnson. He died of lung cancer in 1996.

"To the day he died, Michael smoked," Robinson said. "He got up to 3 packs a day."

In a statement, R.J. Reynolds said it would appeal the decision, calling it "grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law."

Industry experts say the damages almost certainly will be reduced on appeal, if not thrown out completely.

A $28 billion verdict in a 2002 tobacco case in Los Angeles turned into $28 million after appeals.

Robinson's attorneys say they're prepared to fight any such legal action, and Robinson told CBS News that no matter what, she plans to donate some of the money to charity.

Attorney Willie Gary said during the trial that his team presented documents from the tobacco industry, some dating back to the 1960s, in which the companies refused to disclose that nicotine and tobacco would get you hooked.

"He did have a choice," Robinson said, "but did he have a choice to know what was in it? Would he have made that choice if you didn't give him the listing of everything you have in these cigarettes?"

In court, attorney Chris Chestnut played jurors a video of tobacco executives testifying before Congress in 1994.

"We saw on a video every major tobacco executive from the major companies," Chestnut said. "The microphone going from each one to the next and they're all saying tobacco is not addictive."

Chestnut prepared evidence to counter that claim.

"And we had just shown the jury documents from decades before, internal, confidential, private, secret documents that said tobacco is addictive," he said.

When Robinson heard the verdict, she felt as if some wrongs were righted.

"Justice has been served, not only for me but others," Robinson said. "I have children. I have grandchildren that's coming up in the world. I don't want them to lose their lives over smoking cigarettes."