U.S. Supreme Court
Supreme Court Considers Tobacco Punitives, for Third Time
Posted Dec 3, 2008 9:32 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss
The U.S. Supreme Court will return to the familiar today when it hears arguments on whether to set aside a $79.5 million punitive damages award against tobacco giant Philip Morris.
The high court has twice overturned the punitive verdict, and the Oregon Supreme Court has twice reinstated it, Bloomberg reports. The company’s appeal of the verdict awarded to a smoker’s widow now seeks to turn the case into a fight between the two courts, according to an argument preview on SCOTUSblog.
The case explores the contours of a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court decision that bars “grossly excessive” punishment for corporate wrongdoing, SCOTUSblog says. Tobacco companies have most often litigated the meaning of the 15-year-old decision, TXO Production Corp. v. Alliance Resources Corp.
In the Philip Morris case, the U.S. Supreme Court first overturned the award to widow Mayola Williams in 2003, but the Oregon Supreme Court on remand said the company’s reprehensible conduct warranted the large verdict. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the verdict a second time last year, saying juries may not impose damages for harm done to those who are not parties in a lawsuit. On remand, the Oregon high court said it wouldn’t consider the constitutional issue because jury instructions proposed by the company had misstated state law, an independent ground for upholding the verdict.
Phillip Morris contends the Oregon Supreme Court applied the state's requirement for correct jury instructions in a “hyper-technical” way, according to the Bloomberg story. An amicus brief by the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation asks the Supreme Court to draft new guidelines for what kind of state-law ground is adequate to foreclose review of a federal issue, SCOTUSblog says.
The case is Philip Morris USA v. Williams.